Mother, I am in love with a robot.
No, she isn’t going to like that.
Mother, I am in love.
Are you, darling?
Oh yes, mother, yes I am. His hair is auburn, and his eyes are very large. Like amber. And his skin is silver.
Mother, I’m in love.
With whom, dear?
His name is Silver.
Yes, It stands for Silver Ionized Locomotive Verisimulated Electronic Robot.
Silence. Silence. Silence.
Thus opens Tanith Lee’s 1981 future inter-being romance, The Silver Metal Lover, a heart-wrenching exploration of romance, tech and yes, love.
It tells the story of Jane, plain by the standards of her future oligarchic city-state (a combination of Privatopia and Somatopia) and firmly under the thumb of her powerful and rich mother. Seethingly comfortable with her existence, she meets Silver, an entertainment robot, playing guitar and singing in the plaza. She’s embarrassed. Then angry. Then hopelessly in love. Before long she’s thrown her old life to the winds.
Short by the standards of most science fiction, with terrifyingly real characters, it packs a punch that’s not to be underestimated. When the The Silver Metal Lover is called a tearjerker, it’s the blunt truth.
“I do feel human,” he said at last. “I’m supposed to feel human, in order to act in a human manner. But there are degrees. I know I’m a machine. A machine who behaves like a man, and partly feels like a man, but which doesn’t exactly emote like a man. Except that, probably very unfortunately, I have gained emotional reflexes where you’re concerned.”
“Have you?” I said softly. I believed him. There was no doubt in me. I felt amazingly gentle.
“Viewed logically,” he said. “all that’s happened is that I’m responding to your own response. You react to me in a particular way, an emotive way. And I react to your reaction. I’m simply fulfilling your need if you like.”
No, I don’t like. I’m tired of your fulfilling my needs. I want to fulfill yours. What do you need, Silver?”
He raised his eyes and looked at me. His eyes seemed to go a long way back, like sideways seas, horizontal depths.
“You see,” he said. “nobody damn well says ‘what do you need?’ to a bloody robot.”
“There is some law which forbids me to say it?”
“The law of human superiority.”
“You are superior.”
“Not quite. I’m an artifact. A construct. Timeless. Soulless.”
“I love you,” I said.
“And I love you,” he said. He shook his head. He looked tired, but that was my imagination, and the fluttering light. “Not because I can make you happy. If I even can. Not for any sound mechanical pre-programmed reason. I just Goddamn love you.”
“I’m glad,” I whispered.
“Archetypes are universal, and, in subtle or extravagant ways, interchangeable. I like writing about women, weak and strong, pathetic and heroic. I like writing about men, ditto. And all the variants of men and women, beasts and demons.”
-Lee, from an interview in Tabula Rasa
The basic story Lee tells is an old one, and ever since science fiction began, there’s been mad scientists loving their beautiful steel creations. But, with her almost cringe-inducingly realistic characterization, Lee dumps the tragic ideals to show how such a taboo relationship might actually work.
That’s not entirely unexpected from Lee, one of the geniuses to come out of the great Deviant Age of sci-fi. I had a lot of trouble choosing which one of her works I’d go in-depth on, as she put out so many beautifully cutting edge stories in this time. She’s still writing, has won a slew of awards and accolades and her fame is justly earned. Her work ranges from sword and sorcery to the so-darque-it-hurts Secret Books of Paradys
Suffice to say, I doubt this is the last time you’ll see her name on All Tomorrows.
It should also be noted that she does occasionally don an appropriately festive seasonal hat.
The Silver Metal Lover serves as far more than interesting exercise in “what if?” because it draws its resonance from the archetypal star-crossed lover tale it brings kicking and screaming into reality. Her quote above neatly sums up the strength of the book. Jane is human. We’ve all known — or been — her at some point. In little ways she carves out her own freedom, painting flesh silver to become something other and better than she’s known.
Silver too, becomes far more than a machine, though never human, as Lee scratches at a common emotional core potent enough to be nameless (“humanity” doesn’t quite fit).
The Silver Metal Lover is a herald of tomorrow. Minus a dark age, the day will come when machines react to humans to such an extent that the emotions could become indistinguishable. Forget the cold definitions of what really constitutes artificial intelligence. Lee’s right, the threshold will be crossed the day a robot returns an adolescent crush full-force — and it will probably be just as messy as she depicts.
The Silver Metal Lover is also an old story: a tribute to the insane, stupid courage that comes from being in love when it could never, ever possibly work out. We’d have a bleaker world without.
Question: In the last 50 years most of the old rules about romantic love and what follows have gone out the window and the new ones are still about as amorphous as it gets. Machines intelligent enough to “love” back may be a ways out on the horizon, but technology’s already changing the way people love and lose. What’s the most shocking change you’re seeing and where’s it going? (Vague, I know, but humor me and run with it.)