Facts versus romance
You go and call yourself the boss
But we’re not robots inside a grid
Text versus romance
You go and add it all you want
Still we’re not robots inside a grid
Zeros and ones
—”Science vs. Romance,” by Rilo Kiley
But what if you are a robot? Are you not capable of love, as well? This is a question plumbed by the consummate film Heartbeeps (1981), wherein two household robots gathering dust in a repair shop—played by Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters, no less—fall in love decide to run away together. That’s one point for electric love!
Perhaps the idea of besotted robots isn’t too hard to imagine, but what about romance between a human and a robot? Susan Seidelman’s Making Mr. Right (1987), dares to tackle this decidedly hairier proposition. Here, a misanthropic scientist (John Malkovich) builds an android version of himself (also John Malkovich) designed to deal with all his social obligations. Wouldn’t you know it? The android and public relations expert fall for each other. That’s point number two!
The idea of designing one’s perfect partner is also raised in Mumford (1999), one of my favorite oddball 90s movies, though it isn’t the story’s main focus. Ultimately, this robotic venture is abandoned when an actual human relationship enters the robot designer’s life. Sorry, that’s one for same-species couples. Spike Jonez, on the other hand, goes a step further in Her (2013), where he explores a love affair between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and an AI embedded in his computer’s operating system. Assuming she’s no HAL, that’s another point for robots, making the final score 3:1 in favor of Science + Romance. Looks like love is even more powerful and complicated than we thought!
Robot love is not restricted to movies, of course. Plenty of books are concerned with the same question, pulling in robots, AI, clones, androids, and genetically modified humans. Indeed, I discovered a surprising number of racy series devoted to this, including Cyborg Seduction, Silver Metal Lover, Machine Lust, Body Electric, and, my personal favorite, Cyborg Sizzle. If these sound as terrifying to you as they do to me, let me offer an alternative list of SF YA that asks readers to think with their heads and their hearts.
Cinder, by Marissa Meyer
This first entry in Meyer’s popular “Lunar Chronicles” retells the story of Cinderella, casting cyborg Cinder in the lead role.
Delirium, by Lauren Oliver
In the near future, love is considered a disease that can be prevented by undergoing an operation. As 17-year-old Lena counts down the days to her own operation, the arrival of rakish Alex (“uncured” and emotionally intact) leads her reexamine her chosen future.
The Diabolic, by S.J. Kincaid
Genetic modification rears its head in the form of Nemesis, a superhuman “diabolic” built to protect one person. When Nemesis goes undercover to keep her mistress safe, she finds herself falling in love—something supposedly impossible for a diabolic.
Disruption, by Jessica Shirvington
In a not-too-distant future, everyone is microchipped by law, allowing M-Corp to monitor everything from blood pressure to people’s pheromones and levels of attraction to one another. When a teenaged Maggie falls in love, a fast-paced sf romance unfolds that considers interesting questions about society’s relationship to technology, and whether to opt for naturally evolving or tech-assisted relationships.
Origin, by Jessica Khoury
Hidden away in the Amazon, 17-year-old Pia has been genetically engineered to be perfect and immortal; but is eternal life worthwhile without love? This science- and romance-tinged adventure story turns the concept of eternal love on its head.
Railhead, by Philip Reeve
Small-time thief Zen Starling is tapped for an elaborate heist in a world of inter-planetary travel, robotic labor, and sentient trains. While being prepped for the job, he happens to lose his heart to a Motorik android.
Skinned, by Robin Wasserman
After 17-year-old Lia’s accident, her consciousness is downloaded into a plastic body, and she goes from popular girl to “mech head” outcast. Rejected by her friends and boyfriend, her still-human emotions are put to the test.