The argument against Valentine’s Day is that it is an invented holiday designed to sell greeting cards, chocolate, and flowers. But who’s to say those tokens of affection don’t symbolize real love? What exactly is real love, anyway? A system of measured responses, right? Couldn’t we think of it as a subroutine hidden within our DNA, made manifest in the form of tiny paper hearts? And if so, could a machine feel love?
Romance between man and machine isn’t the rarest of sci-fi tropes, but it pops up less often than you’d think, and requires careful drawing of boundaries. There’s a whole spread of artificial or augmented humans in fiction: your classic robot (or maybe more correctly, android), an automaton with varying degrees of sentience or agency in human shape; the cyborg: an enhanced human, who can sport everything from simple physical augmentations to brain implants that potentially change the self into something other than human; then there’s the truly artificial intelligence, usually understood to be disembodied, but occasionally decanted into something approximating human form.
Love stories with straight up robots tend to have a sense of the pathetic around them. It’s like the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “In Theory,” in which the emotionless android Data acquires a girlfriend. His statement that he’s “fully functional” has fired fanfiction furnaces, but it ultimately isn’t true: Data can’t give his lady friend real, reciprocated emotions, even if he can fake them. These stories often fall into an Uncanny Valley: this close to human, but somehow not right. Given the right treatment, the effect can be eerie; not so much “what makes us human” as “what doesn’t?”
Physically enhanced cyborgs probably shouldn’t be considered alongside robots or artificial humans. Characters who have had their brain chemistry altered in some way, a la Robocop, are a different story. These characters often question how much of their personality is their authentic self, and how much is a function of intrusive technology. And, of course, if there is any meaningful distinction between the two.
The question of programming dogs the AI romance as well. The movie Her deals quite beautifully with the alienating power of our technology, and its paradoxical intimacy. The AI with whom the main character is in love sends a human proxy for him to, ahem, “interact” with. He’s more than a little freaked out by this human automaton acting as outlet to his physical needs. It’s a fairly ravaging sequence, all these layered motivations and desires, acted out between two bodies and a theoretical third mind. Romantic love is a contested thing, and how much physical desire factors into our more courtly or Platonic notions of love is an open question. What kind of love is love that can’t kiss, or hold or touch?
The love story with a programmed being calls into question our own programming, be it cultural or biological. That first flush of new love is often dismissed as “mere lust,” but without it, what separates romantic love from the more familial kinds? The question of agency dogs these love stories: does anyone choose to love?
Forward the Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
Forward the Foundation is the second of two prequels written decades after Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, and the last novel he wrote before his death. The duology follows the life of Hari Seldon, the father of psychohistory, the fictional sociological mathematics that seeks to divine the future, at least in broad strokes, which drives the plot of the entire series. Hari’s an old man in this novel, winding down before writing what will become his defining theorem, and it’s not hard to read him as Asimov’s alter ego. Hari’s wife is the enigmatic Dors, who is more or less openly acknowledged to be a robot. There’s some blatant wish fulfillment, in that this creaky old man continues to have a hot wife. But also, there’s something adorable about the Granddaddy of Robots envisioning this comfortable marriage with his formidable legacy. Robots were the love of his life.
A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is very much an ensemble cast, set aboard a wormhole-building ship as it threads its way to the galactic core. We are introduced to the relationship between the ship mechanic, Jenks, and the ship’s AI, Lovey, early on: they are in love, and contemplating decanting her personality into a physical body. Chambers dispenses with a lot of the typical handwringing about whether a human and an AI can truly love one another given their differences, etc., etc., and moves on to more complex questions. Lovely and Jenks recognize that they are in many ways alien to one another, but in a universe with literal aliens, their differences are just one among many. Their relationship affected me more than any other in the novel, and I honestly shed tears at the end.
The Silver Metal Lover, by Tanith Lee
Jane is a pampered, pointless teenager in an almost post-apocalyptic Earth, the single daughter of a singer mother who treats her like a toy or a nuisance. She flits around, aimless, with her equally aimless friends, until she meets Silver. He is a new kind of robot, one who is creative and beautiful and almost human, not one of the sad talking heads that drive the taxis. Jane becomes obsessed, more than obsessed, with Silver. The question of Silver’s true agency is constant: whether he can truly love her back, or if it’s just a question of programming, Silver getting better and better at fulfilling Jane’s wishes. There’s a lot about Jane that is pitiable and pathetic, all that desperate need for love on display in a way that makes you wince. Maybe Silver feels what she needs him to feel. Maybe it’s too sad to consider the alternative.
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, by Cassandra Rose Clarke
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is in many ways the most straightforward love story on this list, but that it not to say it is simplistic. The android Finn comes to live with Kat and her family when she is five. He acts as her tutor, then, as she ages, as her lover. She doesn’t believe him to have emotions, and questions her own motivations in enacting an affair with a being who can not reciprocate her feelings. This is the reverse of many robot love stories, where the authenticity of the android’s emotions are questioned endlessly and the human’s are understood to be authentic. This is an intensely personal novel, and achingly lovely.
Keeping it Real, by Justina Robson
Keeping it Real has a real oddball of a setup: in 2015, a CERN-like installation set off a quantum bomb, which reordered the nature of reality. Now, magic and tech co-exist, there are multiple Fairie-like realms in contact with Earth, and the past shifts as all the potential pasts interlace. As I said, it’s a doozy. Special Agent Lila Black is more machine than human at this point, with AIs in her head and weapons programs that can overtake her. She’s tasked with playing bodyguard for rockstar/hunk of burning love/elf Zal, and sparks fly. There is nothing straightforward about this relationship, a complex mediation between not just two different people, but also between magic and technology. Interesting stuff.
Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz
This Nebula-nominated debut novel covers a lot of ground, exploring the ethics of for-profit medicine and the morality of drug piracy in near-future North America altered by climate change, but it’s the secondary narrative, about the subtle awakening of an artificial mind to its own autonomy, that truly resonates. Paladin is an indentured robot partnered with Eliasz, a military agent tasked with tracking down a pharmaceutical pirate, and newly awakening to their own autonomy. Eliasz, who seems to be struggling with repressed homosexual urges, finds himself drawn to the power of the robot’s metallic musculature, an attraction that grows into something like lust when he learns that the scrap of human brain tissue powering Paladin’s facial recognition programming came from a female donor. Questions of consent and power dynamics power are at play in this truly unusual relationship.
Cinder, by Marissa Meyer
In this retelling of Cinderella, Cinder Linh is a cyborg mechanic in a far-future pan-Asian empire. As a cyborg, Cinder has no rights, all of her income going to supporting her bitter step-mother and two step-sisters. She meets the emperor’s son, Kai, when he asks her to fix an old robot. It turns out that someone has tampered with the robot, which results in a sort of murder mystery plot. Cinder and Kai enact their forbidden romance in stolen moments, and she is always aware he may divine her cyborg nature and reject her. Often the robot or the cyborg stands in for other inequalities: racial prejudice, poverty, religious divisions. The cyborg is not quite human, just like [insert slur here], and Cinder highlights the trope.
Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers
Richard Powers’s 1995 novel is a retelling of the Pygmalion myth, about an artist falling in love with a statue he created, and the statue coming to life due to his ardor. In Galatea 2.2, a writer suffering from writer’s block returns to his alma mater for a sabbatical year. There, he’s tasked with teaching an AI named Helen the Western Canon, in the hopes that she can pass a literary Turing test of sorts: can a computer produce literary analysis that is indistinguishable from a human’s? Interwoven with his teaching of Helen are memories of a love affair he had with a woman he calls C. While he and Helen are never quite in a love affair themselves, the depth and complexity of their emotions, and the ways they are contrasted with his volatile relationship with C, make Galatea 2.2 a fascinating study in art and love: how much do we mold and change our lovers, and ourselves, through the act of love?
Our Lady of the Ice, by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Our Lady of the Ice is an interesting one, because the love relationship is between the android Sophia and a cyborg (who I will not specify due to spoilers). Usually, in relationships involving a human, the relative humanity of the robot is at issue: can they even love? But here, Sophia regularly throws the cyborg’s partial humanity back back in her face. The Antarctic dome city where these characters live is barely tolerant of androids, and cyborgs are to be killed upon discovery. Sophia cannot understand why the cyborg would cling to her humanity when humanity wants to end her. It’s interesting to see this conundrum from the other side, with human caprice and need at issue in a robot romance.
Idoru, by William Gibson
Much of Gibson’s catalog could be included here, from whatever the hell it is Bobby and Angie pull off at the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive, to the various modded and enhanced humans who people the Sprawl. Iduro is probably the most explicit. The titular idoru (Japanese for idol) is a synthetic human—an AI who uses holograms to interact with people—named Rei Toei. Rock star Rez wants to marry the idoru, which worries his handlers and staff. Not only is marrying an AI illegal, but the lack of physicality keeps coming up: don’t you want to, um, make love to your wife? Where lovemaking with robots seems pathetic (or creepy), the lack of sex with AIs makes the romantic love seem incomplete.
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie
One could argue that there is neither romantic love nor robots in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, but bear with me: main character Breq is an ancillary, the last human body of the space ship Justice of Toren’s AI; she is a remnant of a larger AI, trapped in a single body. Looks like an android to me. All the other ancillaries, and the ship itself, were destroyed because the ship loved its captain, the way a ship is designed to do, and it was ordered to destroy that love. That question of love, both in terms of affection and allegiance, dogs the entire trilogy, but becomes very explicit in this final chapter.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Honestly, I struggled with whether to include this one. I figured I’d get a bunch of people yelling at me if I didn’t at least acknowledge it, even though there really isn’t a central love story. Dick’s works often grapple with what it means to be human, both how we can know ourselves and what the world around us is. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? follows the (sort of) bounty hunter Rick Deckard, tasked with “retiring” rogue androids. He ends up in a tangled relationship with the very nearly human android Rachael, and, you know, could be an android himself. One of the novel’s central questions is empathy, that ability to imagine and honor the interior states of others. Maybe it’s love, maybe it isn’t—maybe you’re human, or you aren’t—but if you can’t tell the difference, what’s the difference?
What’s your favorite robot love story?