It’s unfortunate that Tanith Lee had to pass away for me to get the jolt of interest needed to read her work. The Silver Metal Lover (1981), one of her most loved works, is a story about an immature love that blossoms into a fully realized one, and about an immature girl who cries too often and falls in love too easily but blossoms into a strong-willed, independent woman. It’s a story about Jane, and her relationship with her robot lover, Silver.
Were this tender novel published today, it would be shelved in the Young Adult section of a bookstore, but such a label had yet to be conceived when it was first published in 1981. It features some of the defining characteristics of that genre as well: a dystopic world whose foundations are crumbling (though in Silver Metal Lover the dystopic elements serve more as background), a young protagonist inexperienced in life and love thrust into a chain of events that will change her or his entire way of life, and a romantic interest perfect in every way, capable of wooing every woman and man. And yet The Silver Metal Lover is far from being a cliché. Just as the best books in any genre can be read and appreciated by even those who tend to read outside that specific genre, The Silver Metal Lover can be read and loved by almost anyone.
Jane has lived an cloistered life in an house high up in the sky, too rich to have ever needed something she could not get, with an intellectual if overbearing mother who encourages Jane to analyze her thoughts and to get to know herself deeply, emotionally as well as sexually. She has some friends, though she doesn’t consider them as such, and she knows she falls in love too easily with fictional characters and bursts into tears too easily over the most minor things.
Yet one day, in a luxurious party thrown by her friend Egyptia, she meets Silver. Silver is a robot, one of a new kind. Silver looks like a human, with auburn hair and silver skin, and he sings and plays any instrument like no other man can. Though she knows it’s crazy to fall in love with a robot, Jane thinks she sees in Silver something more, something that hints that Silver is indeed more than a robot, that he is a real person. Thus begins Jane’s story.
Tanith Lee is a romantic, for only a romantic soul could write a love story such as the one in this novel. In three hundred pages we experience the crazy swells of emotion that come from first love, the introspective calm of getting to know one’s true soul, and the intriguing excitement that comes from taking one’s life in one’s own hands. There’s heartbreak and joy, and Tanith Lee is capable of making the journey well worth it, casting aside the banalities of most love stories to tell us a story that we can relate to even in its strangeness.
Even though it takes a while to get used to the vision of the future Lee portrays — it was written three decades ago — the journey is worth the wait, and it will stay in your mind for a long time. It usually takes a lot for me to emotionally resonate with a book’s climax, but The Silver Metal Lover truly went all-in in trying to make me shed a tear. This certainly won’t be the last of Tanith Lee that I read.
A human being falling in love with a robot isn’t a particularly innovative concept; it’s been explored hundreds of times over the years. But it’s a premise with the potential for raising fascinating questions about the human condition and the nature of love, and Tanith Lee provides a spin on the usual formula: in this case it’s a young girl who falls in love with a male A.I.
Sixteen year old Jane (whose name is probably an allusion to the phrase “plain Jane”) is a child of privilege, living with her mother in a beautiful apartment in the clouds, spending her days in idle luxury. But then one day, she crosses paths with a silver-skinned android; one so technologically advanced that it’s designed not to perform menial tasks, but to entertain with beautiful music, a charming personality, and sexual prowess.
Her reaction is nearly violent in its intensity, and it only deepens when her friend Egyptia hires Silver (an acronym for Silver Ionized Locomotive Verisimulated Electronic Robot) for her own enjoyment. Jane can’t help but feel something so wondrous must have a soul of its own, and takes drastic steps to not only secure Silver’s independence, but to escape her toxic friends and smothering mother.
It’s often amusing to read sci-fi books set in the future but written several decades ago; they provide a strange sort of time capsule into an author’s understanding of technological change. In this case, Tanith Lee (writing in 1981) can visualize flying transportation and genetic cosmetics, but has no concept of cell-phones or texting, something that Jane certainly would have found helpful across the course of her adventure. Along with all the high-concept tech, Lee also refers to tapes and videos — two words that have more or less left the vernacular, and inevitably make The Silver Metal Lover feel a little dated.
But the sci-fi elements of the book are less important than the human emotions on display — though I have to admit that I was more intrigued by Jane’s relationships with her mother and her friends than with Silver. The love story is less interesting than what it moves Jane to do, which is try to exert power over a life that’s been controlled utterly by the people around her. Watching her shed these aspects of her life are some of the most rewarding parts of the book, and seeing them close in on her again the most suspenseful.
In this sense, The Silver Metal Lover is more a book of personal discovery than a love story, one which has a “spoiled little rich girl” break free of her stifling lifestyle and strike out on her own. Silver is just the impetus for that, not the objective.