My bookcase is starting to resemble a mausoleum. Anne McCaffrey, Harry Harrison, Terry Pratchett – and now Tanith Lee.
I don’t usually read science fiction when I travel so I don’t write about it here, but for many years it formed the bulk of my reading – and Tanith Lee’s work fills shelves. I have over fifty of her books, and that’s barely half of her output. Prolific is putting it mildly – yet most people I know have never heard of her.
She uses – used – language like no-one else, swiftly sketching vivid, atmospheric worlds you’re reluctant to leave – or afraid to be a part of. Sex and violence are rarely far away – but there’s always beauty (however dark) and a sly sense of humour as she leads you through tangled themes of identity, gender, sensuality, vampirism… finishing some of her tales feels like waking from a dream.
And although I file her books with science fiction, that’s just one of the many genres in which she wrote: children, young adults, crime, science fiction, fantasy, history, horror, lesbian erotica – not to mention hundreds of short stories. Ahh, those stories – not usually my favourite form, but hers are like eating chocolates from a foreign country; you have no idea what exotic flavours could be lurking in the next layer.
It made her impossible to pigeonhole – and, possibly, hard to promote. Any child who loved Piratica, but then went on to read Disturbed By Her Song would probably be very disturbed indeed. But this variety is part of her appeal – whatever mood I’m in, there’ll be something to suit.
She also wrote for radio and television, and it was here that I first came across her, when she wrote an episode of Blake’s 7 (classic British 80s sci-fi). Sarcophagus is spookily atmospheric, and captures the show’s characters perfectly. I loved that episode, and wanted to read more of her work, but before the Internet it was hard to come by, especially those titles which were out of print. Half were published in Europe, half in the United States, by different publishers, with different cover styles, sometimes with alternative titles – not to mention foreign editions (translated into about twenty languages).
A friend let me read her cherished copy of Kill the Dead – in one sitting, as she wouldn’t let anyone take it out of the house. This uses alternate versions of some of the Blake’s 7 characters in a ghost story setting, and is a perfect example of how fan fiction can become literature (take note, Fifty Shades!).
After this I spent years looking for a copy of my own; scouring the shelves of second-hand bookshops, always keeping an eye out for Daw’s distinctive yellow spines. Along the way I found Red As Blood, The Electric Forest, The Flat Earth series – I treasured them all. Usually I prefer the covers of my books to match, but with these that didn’t matter; simply finding a Tanith Lee book I hadn’t read was, and still is, an event.
Then one year, on my birthday, I found a shiny new copy of The Silver Metal Lover. And although if you forced me to choose I’d say Kill the Dead is still my favourite, The Silver Metal Lover is a very close second, and so that’s the one I always suggest to other people (because although Kill the Dead stands alone as a story, if you’re familiar with Blake’s 7 it gives it another dimension, and certainly makes it even more fun).
On a futuristic Earth, teenage virgin Jane lives in a house above the clouds. Her wealthy mother controls her whole life – what she weighs, what she thinks, how many friends she has. Quiet, passive, Jane goes along with everything, content in her cocoon, until she falls in love – with a robot.
He’s a singer, one of a new line of recreational robots, impossibly beautiful, distinguishable from humans only by their metallic skin, for which they are named – Gold, Copper, Silver.
Initially repulsed, Jane falls for Silver. Her friends Clovis (delightfully snarky) and Egyptia (hysterical drama queen) arrange to buy him on her behalf. Jane then runs away with Silver, and they begin setting up home in the slums on the surface. Jane learns how to be independent, and gains the courage to try things which would once have terrified her – like standing up to her mother.
But does Silver love her? Can a robot love?
And then, following riots from human workers afraid of being replaced by robots, the government shuts Silver’s manufacturer down. Their robots are to be recalled – and destroyed…
This would make such a great movie. In fact, most of her stories would – they’re incredibly visual. This book may be nearly thirty years old, but stories about teenage girls and impossible love will always find an audience
If you read only one book by Tanith Lee – read this one. Yes, it’s a girl falling for a robot, which I know may sound silly (particularly to people who wouldn’t normally touch science fiction) but it’s not full of kinky sex. It’s one of the best books about love I’ve ever read.
This book still makes me weep, after all these years I loved it then, I love it even more now, since I discovered how completely love can transform you. In a way it reminds me of The Velveteen Rabbit – the theme that love makes you real. Loving, being loved, losing love…
It’s available for Kindle, along with a lot of her earlier work. (Her most recent books are available from Immanion Press, and if you’d like to know more, Daughter of the Night has an incredibly detailed list of her work.)
Oh – Kill the Dead? It now has pride of place on my bookshelf. Yes, it took seven years of searching but I found a second-hand copy to call my own, and eventually had it signed by the author. I’m so glad I got to meet her.
Thank you, Tanith.