The Silver Metal Lover
by Tanith Lee
The Silver Metal Lover is perhaps Tanith Lee’s best known novel after her three Flat Earth books. It may be the most beloved. Though an abiding Lee fan I was immune to its charms for many years until finally deciding to read it last summer. The cover art had connived this resistance. It’s…unfortunate. Don Maitz may be a wonderful artist but his version of Silver, the android lover of the book, is awful, resembling a liquid metal Terminator in a blood-colored hag wig and a weird, bemused, tremulous expression on his melting face. Eek!
Two later editions and their covers. Both are more in keeping with the character, though in the left version he seems to have a freakishly small head on a too-burly neck, and his clockwork eye, described in the book as a symbol of his artificial nature, gets lost. The version on the right, though less Renaissance-like and without sfumato, rightly captures his bland, optimistic nature, though in the story the mechanics of his left arm were not exposed like that.
(The DAW paperback, though, has Lee’s own artwork on the inside, which is a plus.)
Anyway, back to the book.
It wasn’t a romance per se, but an examination of the idea of romance on an everywoman, 16-year-old Jane. Like the heroine of Twilight she isn’t meant to be an actual teen but a stand-in for the reader, intelligent and aware, who is embarking on her first adult romantic and sexual experience. Jane lives in a world of unlimited luxury and wealth but restricted opportunity, created through artificial insemination to give mom the experience of raising a child. Jane is kept on a loose rein in that she has anything she desires materially, as well as questionable friends and social activities, but remains jobless and underage, economically dependent on her mother as well as being her mother’s analytical object. Jane has frenemies who are similar rich, bored, warped youth, but no real human connection aside from mom, and that one is questionable. Her mother’s control extends even to her appearance – Jane takes special drugs to foster a “Rubenesque” look with curly dark hair.
The story begins when Jane, who is lending some emotional support to a young actress friend on audition, comes across a lifelike robot strolling through the city with a guitar serenading passersby. He’s one of a new generation of robots who as well as being extremely lifelike are able to imitate human artists: musicians, actors, and dancers, crossing a barrier hitherto thought to be restricted. Jane becomes obsessed with him. She HAS to have him. But being under legal age she can’t buy a robot, and doesn’t have enough allowance to anyway. So she connives, through her slightly older friends, to buy him by proxy, and gets the money by selling off all the belongings given to her by her mother. She absconds to the big mean city to live with Silver (so she names him) in a mean little apartment and find out what love and desire are all about.
The novel is long and lush, and the romance is only a part of it. As with all Lee novels there’s a lot more going on the background, all of it picturesque: this future earth has acquired an orbiting asteroid that creates periodic earthquakes, robot labor has created a population of poor and unemployed, and the line between human and robot itself is growing thin with the introduction of Silver’s brethren the Golder (? I guess they all had to match) and Copper series of robots, indistinguishable from humans save for the metallic coloration of their skin. Silver himself has humanlike but silver-toned skin and auburn hair, described poetically by the author but still somehow not an appealing palette of coloration. When Jane’s mother cuts off her allowance he suggests they both make a living as street buskers, where Jane discovers she has a fine voice and musical talent of her own. Silver’s talent also extends to fixing up their hole-in-the-wall apartment; as a robot, he is devoted to and “in love” with whoever owns him. Jane’s conflict, along with her becoming her own woman, is to figure out if his love for her is real, or just part of his sophisticated programming. As the story progresses, it leans to the former.
Their idyll is intruded upon by real life when Jane’s frenemies, who she has depended upon to buy and keep Silver, become jealous and set out to make mischief, leading to Silver being repossessed by the company who made him, and who will destroy him for being too lifelike and flawed.
I don’t cry when I read books, but boy did my heart receive a wringing at the book’s end. The book was uncompromising as it hurtles toward tragedy and revelation, saying much, much more about new love, first love, than any number of contemporary romance novels do.
All of this was sort of muddled together in a continuous stream, like a player-piano roll, told by Jane in first person after the adventure has passed. While not hard to keep track of, it was perhaps too complex and wandering for what the story wanted to be. It’s like the author couldn’t help herself from creating embellishments and trills on the fly as typewritten pages cascaded out of the typewriter one after the other in marathon all-night sessions. (I’ve read that this was really how she wrote.) I could have done, for example, without the many interludes showing Jane’s poisonous friends: a pair of malicious twins, an “oh, snap” bitter gay boy, and an addlepated actress wannabe. They got in the way and weren’t that interesting to me. Though I did enjoy reading the prose about them, as I always enjoy reading Lee’s writing, they weren’t necessary for the direct cut to the heart the story wanted to be.
Put it this way. As a reader, I enjoyed it, as a writer, I wanted more streamlining. But also as a writer, I can’t help but admire that straightforward, stream-of-consciousness technique that accommodates new ideas on the fly.
I also wish young female readers were as in love with this as that crapfest Twilight. They should have been.