Over the winter, I’ve gotten back into reading for pleasure, and specifically into genres that I hadn’t delved into since I was a teenager. Empire of Silence (see review here) was the first sci-fi/fantasy novel I read in many years, and since then I’ve picked up many more in quick succession. I don’t plan to write a review of every book I read, as that seems at odds with the whole reading for pleasure goal, but reviewing books that I particularly enjoyed would seem to strike a decent balance. With that said, here is a review of a book I thoroughly enjoyed…
Today I Am Carey is a story set in the near future. It concerns an android named Carey that is designed to assist terminally-ill patients who are suffering with dementia. It is able to comfort these patients because it contains two different neural networks that can work together: one that can empathize with the patient, and another that can emulate (as in physically become) friends and family, whether living or dead. In the first chapters of the story, Carey becomes whoever Mildred, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, asks for, whether it be her son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, or even her departed husband.
Normally a medical care android’s memory will be wiped after their patient dies, but Mildred’s family asks for Carey to stay on with them, a request that is granted because something is unique with it, and Carey’s designer wants to try to understand why. The story takes off from there.
If you’ve read any of Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories, particularly Bicentennial Man (and the Robin Williams movie based off of it), you may recognize a similar theme at the beginning of Today I Am Carey: a robot/android that seems to be becoming almost human and the ethical and legal implications of that. But Today I Am Carey takes the story in a different direction, and in my opinion takes Asimov’s ideas into an entirely new realm of storytelling.
In Asimov’s robot stories, his Three Laws of Robotics prominently figure in just about every story. In the case of Bicentennial Man, the main issue is at what point a robot becomes physically human enough so that the Three Laws do not apply. In Today I Am Carey, there are some plot points that deal with Carey’s legal status, but the main thread of the story is more about its mental and emotional development towards becoming more human and how that affects the human characters in Carey’s life.
Although there are many ideas about artificial intelligence that Shoemaker explores throughout the book, Today I Am Carey also delves deeply into the human characters surrounding the protagonist. After all, what better narrator to use in a character-driven story than an android that has an empathy neural network? Carey, because of his unique construction, can infer things from its interactions that a human being would never be able to infer. I think that first-person narrative elevates the story from your standard exploration of ideas to something that every reader, not just those who enjoy science fiction, would enjoy and relate to.
Shoemaker’s prose is deceptively straight-forward. I still don’t know how he did it, but he was able to make a story narrated by an artificial intelligence in a matter-of-fact manner deliver powerful emotional impacts, even when you have an inkling that those impacts are coming. The ending ties the events of the story together in a way that was both perfectly appropriate and in a way I never saw coming.