Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee

"He's a robot, but he made me feel more like a woman, more conscious of my desires, my needs, than any man ever did."

Last week the winds of fate yet again blew me to the region of West Des Moines, so I took some time to look into Half Price Books.  In the SF aisle I encountered one of those guys who talks about the books out loud to nobody or himself ("Is this a sequel? Or the first in the series?  It says on the cover here one thing, but inside it says...oh, no this is the first in the series...") presumably in hopes of striking up a conversation with another customer.  I pretended to study the clearance spinner rack so intensely that I didn't even notice this fellow creature and his sad cry for some kind of human connection in this lonely world.  My focus was rewarded with the discovery of a copy of the DAW 1982 edition of Tanith Lee's The Silver Metal Lover.

(I'm not exactly crazy about Don Maitz's cover illustration, but Tanith Lee herself drew the frontispiece to this edition of the novel, which is pretty cool.  A must-have for all Tanith Lee collectors!)

The Silver Metal Lover is perhaps Lee's most famous work, but, for whatever reason, I have not seen it on book store or library shelves in many years.  When I first heard about it, as a kid, I had no interest in reading a 240-page book about a chick who wants to have sex with a robot.  (The year The Silver Metal Lover came out, 1981, my favorite book was The Empire Strikes Back novelization by Donald F. Glut, who also produced one of my top ten favorite nonfiction books, The Dinosaur Dictionary.) As an adult I have been very impressed by much of Lee's short fiction, and so I became curious about this famous novel.  This week I satisfied my curiosity.

Jane is a lachrymose 16-year-old who lives with her wealthy mother Demeta in a luxurious house that sits on steel stilts among the clouds.  Twenty miles away from Jane's home lies a large city, where live all of what girls today might call Jane's "frenemies."  Foremost among Jane's circle are Clovis, a sophisticated, promiscuous and cruel gay man, and Egyptia, like Jane an emotionally extravagant teen-aged girl. Then there are the twins, Jason and Medea (incest is a common theme in Lee's work), who are very wealthy but enjoy shoplifting and picking pockets.  Jason is an electronics whiz, and one of his hobbies is making amateur surveillance devices and booby traps.

Robots are everywhere, acting as servants in Jane's house and as clerks in stores, operating taxis and ambulances, even performing police duties.  These robots look and act like machines; Jane calls the household robots "spacemen" because they resemble astronauts' vacuum suits, complete with flat reflective faces.  As the novel begins new robots come on the market that look just like humans and can move and talk just as well as humans; in fact, better than humans. Jane sees a model with silver skin (the silver ones are musicians) and it is more physically attractive and a better singer and guitarist than any human male ever could be. Jane falls in passionately in love, and hopes to acquire the robot.  Her allowance won't cover the cost of the silver model, and her mother would presumably disapprove anyway, so Jane turns to Clovis and Egyptia for aid.  Egyptia purchases the robot, but she finds that it is so skillful in bed she is not sure she wants to part with it.  (Clovis also takes a turn in bed with the machine when left alone with it.)

In order to secure the robot for herself, while her mother is away at a conference (Demeta is a sort of academic, leading archaeological expeditions when Jane was a baby and currently presenting papers and chairing meetings and so forth) Jane sells all the clothes and furniture in her room, buys the robot from Egyptia, and runs away from home.  She moves into a crummy apartment in the poor part of town with her robot boyfriend, whom she just decides to call "Silver," and doesn't give her new address to her mother or any of her so-called friends.

Silver is the perfect boyfriend: thanks to his computer brain and super strong, super fast body, he is an expert at lovemaking, is always attentive and supportive, can play any musical instrument like a genius, can write beautiful songs and hilarious jokes on the fly, decorates their apartment in high style on the cheap, etc.  Away from her mother and her selfish creepy friends Jane becomes happy, and, because she is off the strict diet of pills and hair treatments Demeta foisted on her for years she loses weight and goes from a plump dull-haired girl to a strikingly beautiful blonde.  With Silver's encouragement she turns out to be a talented singer and song writer.

At the same time Silver seems to be learning from Jane how to feel--she is bringing him to life in a literal way even as he is bringing her to life metaphorically, helping her achieve her potential.  (It is hinted a few times that something is different about Silver; in a scene at the robot store the manager says Silver "doesn't check out," and "some of the readings are altered."  Maybe Silver is special before Jane purchases him, but that scene in the store is after Jane meets Silver on the street and kisses him, so maybe her kiss brought him to life.)

Can such happiness last?  The mischievous and malevolent Jason and Medea track down Jane and Silver.  At the same time the city government, in response to protests against the robots and as part of their economic policy (unemployment is one of the government's main concerns, so the last thing they want is robots who can replace even talented musicians, actors and dancers) have pressured the robot manufacturers to recall all their products and close up shop.  Jane decides they must escape the city. Clovis uses his wealth and connections to try to help Jane and Silver get out of the state, but Egyptia and the twins guide the electronics company people right to them. Silver is captured and (apparently) melted down into scrap and Jane, bereft, slashes her wrists, only to be rescued by Clovis's agents before she expires.

After Jane has recovered from her suicide attempt she receives what appears to be a supernatural message from Silver, suggesting that, thanks to Jane's love, he has developed a soul and awaits her in the afterlife.  (Cleverly, Lee foreshadows this development 220 pages earlier, as I noticed only after finishing the book and flipping through it.)

The Silver Metal Lover is kind of long, but it doesn't feel long.  Lee's style is smooth and very readable, and the characters and world feel quite real, and at the same time are quite mysterious, so I was always eager to learn new things about them.  Some years before Jane was born the Earth suffered a cataclysmic strike from a meteor ("the Asteroid") which killed millions of people and altered the very geography of the Earth. Lee fills the book with charming images: at night the city looks like jewels, a polluted purple river is inhabited by armored mutant fish, fragments of the Asteroid have gathered together and orbit the Earth as a second, blue-colored, moon.  All through the book I was trying to figure out where the city was; London?  New York?  Los Angeles?  The characters all use British idioms (e.g.; "I had a vision of myself standing there like a blancmange," and "They're very mean, despite their riches and their thievery,") but talk about fleeing "upstate," or leaving the "state."  People can leave the city to the east (there is agriculture there) but also to the west.  Within the city there is an "Island" in an old reservoir where rich people live, and nearby a "Canyon, which had been created even prior to the Asteroid...."  A puzzle!  Probably the city is a fantasy archetype of one or more real cities; Lee has done such things with Venice and Paris in other of her books.

All you well-read people can enjoy the numerous allusions to classical literature and Shakespeare.

The novel works as a love story set in an engaging locale, as a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy for young women (princess plain Jane leaves home to meet her soul-mate and become a beauty and a popular singer) but it also addresses a number of interesting issues--in the same way I enjoyed trying to figure out where in the world the novel is set I enjoyed trying to puzzle out what, if anything, Lee was trying to say about life.

One obvious theme is of humanity rendered obsolete and even replaced by its creations.  The minor characters in the novel, in particular the city mob threatened by unemployment and the city government that does its bidding (and Egyptia, an aspiring actress who fears robots will take all the acting jobs), fear the replacement of humans by technology, but Jane and Lee herself seem to embrace the idea.  Lee even depicts the very thing that so many believe sets humanity apart from the rest of the universe, a soul, being attained by a machine.  Jane paints her skin silver, showing her allegiance to the robot and metaphorically abandoning the human race, and Clovis similarly changes his style in imitation of Silver, dyeing his hair red.

The Silver Metal Lover could be seen as an indictment of the human male (or perhaps more specifically straight men), or maybe just an assertion that men are superfluous and unneeded by women.  Silver, a mechanical device, is superior in every way to any man, as an artist, a friend, and a lover.  Men realize their inferiority, and like the Luddites of the Industrial Revolution they violently protest to defend their position in society.  But while the Luddites failed to halt technological progress, the city government in The Silver Metal Lover bends to the will of men and the robots are shuffled off the scene, rendering the robots the tragic figures, not the unemployed men.

Jane has no father (her mother was artificially inseminated) and half of Jane's friends likewise have no father in the home.  The evil Jason and Medea have a father, but he has signally failed to raise them to be decent human beings.  Clovis has a father, but when Jane says "I never had a father," right after declaring that Silver would make a fine foster father, Clovis's reply is "you didn't miss a thing." All the male characters in the book are malevolent or creepy, and even the homosexuals who aid Jane (like Clovis and Jane's understanding slum landlord) are associated with anti-social character traits, deception and/or disease.

Of course, most of the women in the novel are also pretty crummy.  Egyptia and Demeta are dominated by their own selfish emotions and take advantage of and manipulate others to suit their own warped psychologies.  You could perhaps criticize the book on feminist grounds: Jane's life revolves around her relationship with a "man," and other people (primarily males like Clovis and Silver) are always rescuing her from her problems (some of which are caused by envious women), providing money and saving her from death.  (Not that I would let such criticisms get between me and the enjoyment of the novel; Jane in The Silver Metal Lover, who is obsessed with love, like Podkayne in Robert Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars, who is fascinated by babies, remind me a lot more of real women I have met than many of the women we so often see in recent SF productions, who are always killing vampires and zombies by the score in hand-to-hand combat.)

I think we have to consider the possibility that one of the main themes of The Silver Metal Lover is misanthropy; people are crappy and we should not regret that robots will replace us!  Clovis tells Jane that having sex with Silver, "made me aware, for the eighty millionth time, what a pile of gaumless garbage most of humanity is."  Ouch!

On a more positive note, maybe we can see the novel as promoting individualism and celebrating rare generous love relationships, recognizing the importance of being yourself and surrounding yourself with supportive people who try to help you rather than change you, who express their love by helping to set you free.  Among her domineering mother and jerks like Egyptia, Jason and Medea, Jane could not grow, could not be herself.  When Jane escapes her mother's baleful influence she blossoms, losing weight (Clovis thinks she's lost thirty pounds and Jane tells us she has a 22-inch waist) turning out to be a blonde.  Egyptia also sees a change in her character: "Jane, you've changed so much....You're beautiful.  And fey.  And so calm.  So wise."  Jane is quick to credit this change to hanging out with Silver instead of Egyptia and her ilk.

Could it be significant that the most evil characters in the book, Jason and Medea, are inseparable twins, living icons of uniformity?  ("Like a lizard, Medea slithered abruptly away through the salon.  Jason, impelled by the invisible bit of string which connected them, peering back at Clovis, went after her.")

The Silver Metal Lover is a much more mature, memorable, and engaging and entertaining novel than the other novels of Lee's I have read, The Birthgrave and The Storm Lord.  It achieves the greatness of those short stories I have been praising on this blog, and sustains it for 240 pages.  Recommended.

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