David J Howe talks to Justina Robson about her debut novel.
Silver Screen is a techno-mix of sentient artificial intelligences (AIs) and human relationships set in the future and is the debut novel by a writer named Justina Robson. ‘I’ve been writing since I was about six or so,’ explains Justina. ‘It was never an ambition, just a kind of pastime, making up stories or writing about characters in books and films that I liked – just for myself. I never wrote stories with a view to other people reading them until I was about fifteen, when I started a big fantasy novel which I wrote at night instead of doing my homework. I didn’t like most fantasy at the time, apart from Tanith Lee’s books, so I tried to write like she did. I finished it – 700 pages later – and I think the length impressed me more than the content.
‘I didn’t write at all when I went to University. I decided to “have a life” and not fantasise my existence away, but my intention was that I would be a writer. I dallied for a while with further study but my mind was made up by the time I left. Then began six years of writing that saw three short stories sold and bugger all else. I did two fantasies, both fatties, both unsellable. I couldn’t plot but didn’t realise it until very late. Then I turned to the ideas for Silver Screen that I’d had since the start but never written because I was hung up on writing fantasy.
‘After the plot fiasco I reasoned that I needed to think of some actual stories. So I wrote down some notes about a girl who unknowingly betrays her friends but who manages a kind of salvation by coming through for them in ignorance. All the technical stuff was built up slowly via picking up knowledge from books, articles, journals and the kind of people I go drinking with (engineers!). The philosophical elements are my own takes on the big AI debate which was very dinosaurial at University. I was also really tired of the assumption that AI was always sinister or stupid and had to be smashed up to save us all so some of the things in the book are fuelled by that anger.
‘Two years and several technical revelations later (I finally realised I had taken a few early ‘tips for writers’ far too seriously) out came this book, quite unlike any other I’d done before.
‘The character of Anjuli was a life saver for me. The first draft of the book was written in the third person and really dragged – I couldn’t find the spirit of it or get the tone right. Then I started writing from her point of view and – pow – it ran off with me like a rocket. Anjuli was easy to write for in the first person because she is such a definite character. She has views. She also has some of my odd or neurotic outlooks on things: my doubtfulness and the suspicion that any minute everything’s going to hell in a handbasket. I didn’t want her to be my mouthpiece however, and I don’t think that she is, but she feels things like I do, even if she doesn’t act like me.’
Reading Silver Screen one might think that Justina’s influences are in the high-tech fiction of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson or Bruce Bethke. This, however, is wrong: ‘I couldn’t tell you exactly who my influences are – I simply like an inspiring read. But writers I admire and enjoy: Iain Banks, Tanith Lee, Philip Dick, Geoff Ryman, Robert Irwin, Philip Pullman, Jonathan Carroll, Tricia Sullivan, Helen Dunmore, John Meaney, Peter Hamilton, Freda Warrington, China Mieville … but the list changes day by day depending on what I’m reading at the time. I’m lucky, I like a lot of people’s work. I haven’t done much non-genre reading recently but a lot of literary fiction seems quite dull at the moment. I’d rather read adventurous or factual books.’
With Silver Screen being given the star treatment by publishers Macmillan, what’s next?
‘I’m currently writing a novel called Mappa Mundi, which is another near-future technology book. This time however it concerns mind control and theories of cultural and personal evolution. It’s a highly overambitious piece about scientific methods, consciousness raising and the nature of reality. That sounds quite pretentious, doesn't it! It's not meant to. It has a story too, which I hope is mostly unhindered by my crackpot theories on the above, although they’re in there if you want to see them.
‘I can now see that I was always going to be an SF writer. It was just a matter of time. Why I wrote fantasy for so long I can’t say. I think differently since Silver Screen. I couldn’t write a straight fantasy again. It would have to be different.’
Silver Screen was published by Macmillan books in trade paperback on 13 August 1999 priced £9.99.
David J Howe