Posts Tagged ‘Robots’

The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Spectra
ISBN-10: 0553581279
ISBN-13: 978-0553581270

One of the best things about older science fiction is its ability to stand the test of time. Although The Silver Metal Lover was originally published in 1981, the story, characters, and events are so universal that it could have been written only yesterday. Many of today’s authors have lost this knack, the talent of writing universal stories that will be as applicable in twenty or forty years as they are this year.

Jane is a living girl afraid to live. Having grown up as a pet project of her mother’s, she has no will or thoughts or opinions of her own, merely what those around her believe she should have. Her mother has even chosen what Jane will look like, ordering her prescriptions and hair treatments that leave her plump and plain. Her friends are not really her friends, and the course of her life has been set since the moment her mother chose to be artificially inseminated.

All of this monotony changes in a moment when Jane sets her eyes upon Silver for the first time. S.I.L.V.E.R. stands for Silver Ionized Locomotive Verisimulated Electronic Robot. Electronic Metals has released a new and innovative line of robots, designed to appear nearly human and with extraordinary creative skills. Silver is one of these robots, let out into Jane’s city to act as a walking advertisement for the new models. He sings and plays music like that of a master musician, and Jane is instantly drawn to and repelled by him.

As they run into each other over the next few days, Jane begins to realize that Silver is like no man or robot she has ever encountered before. Eventually, she falls in love with him, and gives up everything she knows to buy him and be with him. When the government forces Electronic Metals to recall their too-human robots after pressure from a discontented public, Jane and Silver must run from the corporation determined to melt him down into scrap.

Jane herself is represented well as an inexperienced, sheltered rich girl. She doesn’t lord her wealth over others, but does take it for granted in the usual privileged way. Her most telling sacrifice and the true start of the story is when she sells her possessions in order to pay for Silver. Jane has never exerted her will or her own desires on anyone, always letting others take the lead, especially her mother. It takes a dramatic upheaval in her emotions for her to begin realizing how very controlled she is, and for her to start breaking that control. Silver is a catalyst for asserting her own independence.

The relationship between Jane and Silver could so easily have become clichéd and sickly sweet, but instead the problems that arise between them are serious and taken seriously. Their relationship isn’t perfect, and neither are either of them, regardless of the fact that Silver was supposedly constructed perfectly. As Jane begins to live her own life, she in turn brings Silver to life through her own human emotions and reactions. They grow and change through each other, in a way that two human partners often don’t learn how to do.

The side characters in the story are themselves interesting people, each with their own neuroses and flaws. Clovis, possibly Jane’s closest friend, is unable to love or be loved. He frequently uses cheap parlor tricks to get his live-in lovers to vacate, including holding phony séances in which a spirit tells them to leave. He is also very casually and matter-of-factly gay. Egyptia is a self-absorbed drama queen, often putting herself at the center of attention in as loud a way as possible. Jane’s mother, Demeta, is a distant and calculating figure, manipulating Jane and her life in whatever manner she deems best. Each character we meet plays a vital part in the story, no matter how minor it may seem at the time.

I wouldn’t call this story realistic, because in reality I think life would have been much harder for them once they moved into a place of their own and tried supporting themselves. But again, it’s science fiction, and it’s difficult to imagine what the reality of this situation would be like. Tanith Lee has a very elegant touch with descriptive words and personal narratives. You never get tired of hearing Jane’s inner thoughts, and it’s fascinating to watch Jane grow from a mousy child into an independent woman. There are some corny parts in The Silver Metal Lover, but it is after all a love story, and they are kept to a minimum.

This book not only brings up questions of self awareness and personal freedom. Hinted at is the implication that even as humanity strives for perfection within themselves and their machines, a truly perfect copy of a human would never be accepted. The idea that a machine could be a better human than a real human is a concept that the general public could never tolerate. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for thought provoking science fiction on top of a good love story. I know I’ll be thinking about The Silver Metal Lover for days.


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I, Robot by Isaac Asimov I_Robot

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have become some of the founding concepts of science fiction and artificial intelligence alike. I, Robot is a collection of 9 short stories tied together by the memories and experiences of Dr. Susan Calvin that deal with the first writings by Asimov on the subject of robots.

After a long and illustrious career in robot psychology working for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Dr. Susan Calvin is retiring. A reporter from one of the major newspapers comes to interview her, looking for a recap of her career and any interesting or exciting stories she may have to tell about her robotic patients over the long years of her practice.

Each story in the collection features a unique and mind bending look at how the Three Laws shape a robot’s psychology, as well as how a human must twist to see things from their perspective.

The Three Laws of Robotics are as follows:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

As Calvin begins to relive the important robot-centric events from her life, we are shown heartbreaking characters, human and robot both, and frightening looks at what would happen to humans if ever the Three Laws were changed or broken in any way.

In “Little Lost Robot” a group of robots have a modified First Law, wherein the second half of the law is not part of their positronic brains. This leads to a scenario in which a robot, through action and then inaction, could cause harm to humans. With the story “Liar!” a quirk in manufacturing has led to a robot that can read minds, but will a robot who is programmed to cause no harm, really be capable of revealing the true thoughts of those around us? Or will we only hear what we want to? And in “Evidence” we are presented with the possibility of a robot made to look and pass as human. Would he become our overlord, or the greatest humanitarian in history?

The fascinating thing about these stories is the almost complete lack of action, proving definitively that you can in fact write science fiction without explosions and drooling aliens. Very few of them actually contain even scenes in the outdoors; most of the storylines take place in dialogue or inner monologues, leading to a book that not only makes us think, but makes us think hard. Another amazing point in their favor is the sheer ability of these stories to withstand the test of time. They are as relevant today as they were fifty or sixty years ago.

The fact that Susan Calvin is a woman, a pioneer in her field, a juggernaut in the robotics industry, and incredibly intelligent in her own right is a huge point in the book’s favor as well. But unfortunately, Asimov chose to make her independent by turning her into the stereotypical “Ice Queen”. Calvin is cold, blunt, and often compared to her beloved robots to her detriment. In “Liar” she is shown to have a heart, but the cruelty with which it is bruised and made mock of by her fellow robotics engineers is incredibly harsh. I would have enjoyed it slightly more if Calvin could be seen as human, rather than a human-shaped robot.

As well, the world in the future is apparently run by your typical WASP man, with the exception of Calvin. I don’t recall a single character of color, male or female, in the entire set of stories, except the very last one in “The Evitable Conflict”, and even then I’m not sure of their actual ethnicities. Given that this was written half a century ago, I can actually understand the misstep, but that point doesn’t make me regret it any less.

Overall, while dated in some ways, this collection is still a magnificent piece of science fiction, and any fan would do well to read it, several times in fact.

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