Robots have frequently played pivotal roles in science fiction. In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the False Maria robot is created to destroy. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner features several replicants, or biorobotic androids, created as human soldiers and slaves. There is Pris, the “basic pleasure model” and Zhora, an assassin. Both have a predetermined lifecycle of about three years. When the end approaches, both Pris and Zhora turn deadly. There is also Rachael, an even more advanced replicant, who does not even realize she is a replicant.
And then there is Tanith Lee’s 1981 novel, The Silver Metal Lover, which intriguingly combines elements of Metropolis, Blade Runner, and even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to weave a spellbinding tale of the other part of the story: What happens when someone falls in love with a robot?
Like all truly captivating science fiction novels, the sci-fi elements in The Silver Metal Lover serve as seemingly insignificant background details that are also essential to the story itself; in fact, they are the impetus for the action that takes place.
Jane is a spoiled rich teenager, born through artificial insemination to a mother who treats her as nothing more than a pampered pet. Her mother tells her what to wear, how to color her hair, and what to eat. She has unpleasant, superficial friends whom she can’t stand. At first, we don’t sympathize with Jane; her irritating petulance and penchant for crying may cause readers to even wonder if The Silver Metal Lover is worth finishing.
Then Jane sees S.I.L.V.E.R. (Silver Ionized Locomotive Versimulated Electronic Robot), a cleverly named robot produced by the Electronic Metals company. She is simultaneously repulsed, yet enthralled and when the latter emotion wins out, she gives up everything—literally—to be with Silver.
This is when Lee’s skills as a writer truly excel. Because The Silver Metal Lover sucks you in before you even realize you are trapped. It balances the otherworldly creations of sci-fi with the supernatural feel of fantasy fiction, yet at its core, it is a love story. Like many of Tanith Lee’s other books, it does not fit neatly into any one genre, but it is one of the most engrossing and haunting books I have ever read. I defy anyone to read it and not cry at least once, or days later recall details in a revelatory “Aha!” moment.
For those who may be uncomfortable with the idea of Sci-Fi Romance, you really need to get over it and read this book. Despite the central love story of Jane and Silver, there is a lot more going on here.
It would be difficult to detail too much of the book without giving away some hefty spoilers, but The Silver Metal Lover is a commentary on society and class, a coming of age tale, and a story about what it means to be human.