By Tanith Lee, 1982 (reprinted 1999), Science Fiction Romance
Bantam, $5.99, ISBN #0-553-58127-9
The Silver Metal Lover is a science fiction novel first published in 1982. Don't cringe, it may be SF, but I promise you: this novel has everything you’re looking for in a great romance and a great book. It is a futuristic Romeo and Juliet story, the kind of epic love story that ends in seeming heartbreak yet has love triumphing over tragedy.
Jane is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the future. There is 85 to 90 percent unemployment - robots have become so advanced that they have made the human work force obsolete. Only actors, artists and musicians are safe from being replaced by robots; everyone else lives off welfare. At the novel’s outset, Jane doesn’t really care about any of this. She’s a rich girl, and the house she lives in with her mother floats above the city. Jane may be wealthy but she is not happy. She’s shy, awkward, and every aspect of her personality is dominated by her exotic, powerful, and sometimes frightening mother.
Then she meets Silver and she’s totally, completely, irreversibly in love. She’s ready to challenge everything, from her mother’s dominance to society’s expectations, to have him. There’s one problem, though: Silver is a robot.
Electronic Metals, Ltd. has created a series of Sophisticated Format robots, the most amazingly lifelike robots ever created. Silver is incredibly beautiful, charming, witty, and talented. Yes, talented -- Electronic Metals intends the Sophisticated Formats to break into the only remaining humans-only field: artists, actors, and musicians. Silver is a musician, inhumanly good at what he does. EM has also covered all its bases by making the robots gorgeous, seductive and fully operational, if you know what I mean. As Jane’s cynical friend Clovis remarks, "they’re sex toys." (Clovis, Jane's sharp-tongued gay friend, is my favorite character in this book. His reaction when he meets Silver in person is absolutely priceless.)
We get early hints that there’s something about Silver that just doesn’t check out - he’s more lifelike than the other Sophisticated Formats, his music is too lovely, too original and not mechanized enough. He gets recalled because of it, but by that time, Jane has sold everything she owns and bought Silver. They move into a tiny apartment in the slums and live together as lovers. Because Jane’s mother has told the government that her daughter can come home whenever she wishes, Jane is ineligible for welfare, so she and Silver must make a living as musicians - street buskers, in fact.
Silver is a surprisingly rounded and believable character. This cannot have been easy for the author to accomplish. At one point early in the novel we see him deactivated, with little wheels turning where his eyes should have been. But after Jane buys him and takes him to the slums he seems almost human and tremendously real - sexy and funny, a tender lover and good friend, and the kind of guy you really want to have around when you’re living in the slums. Silver gradually encourages Jane to come out of her shell and to explore all the aspects of her personality that her mother tried so hard to stifle. Jane’s growth as a person throughout the course of this book is very rewarding, as is the revelation about Silver and why he isn’t like other robots.
Jane and Silver are star-crossed lovers (there are several Shakespearean references designed to heighten the Romeo & Juliet feel of the love story). You desperately want them to live happily ever after together, and the enormous odds that are stacked against them makes this a riveting, nail-biting read. The crisis of the book is truly heartbreaking. The epilogue very satisfyingly shows how their love triumphs over tragedy and how Jane has become strong enough to cope with whatever life might throw at her.
So in spite of the fact that The Silver Metal Lover isn’t your typical romance novel, you should find it (since it goes in and out of print, used book stores might be your best bet) and read it. It has humor and witty dueling repartee. Its main characters change and grow over the course of the novel, and its secondary characters are wonderfully well-drawn and add to the plot without distracting from it. It has suspense, tragedy, and heartbreak. And it is soul-searingly romantic, romantic on an epic scale. Tanith Lee, winner of the World Fantasy Award, can make you cry when a robot is deactivated. Now that’s good writing.
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