Today I Am Carey
by Martin L. Shoemaker
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I received an e-book ARC of Today I Am Carey from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It will be published in a little more than a month, March 5, 2019. It is an expansion of a 2015 short story (see link below), nominated for a Nebula, and winner of the Small Press Award from the Washington Science Fiction Association. I personally nominated it for a Hugo, and it might have made the final ballot if not for the combined votes of the Sad/Rabid Puppies that year. The main character and narrator is a caretaker android with unique capabilities.
Its main features are the empathy net, which enables it to sense and react to human emotions, as well as emulation profiles to change its shape, appearance, and vocal range. Its first assignment is in support of medical staff hired for the ailing Mildred Owens, suffering from old age and Alzheimers. Being an android it has no gender, but it can change its shape and size, length and color of hair, etc, so as to emulate either Paul, Mildred's son, or Paul's wife Susan. It can also emulate Paul and Susan's daughter Anna, but never has need to emulate their much younger daughter Millie, since she was born after Mildred's diminished capacity, thus she has no distinct memories of Millie. It even occasionally emulates one of Mildred's doctors or nurses. The emulations are more accurate for those whom the android has had direct interaction, and to a lesser extent for those whom it has audio and/or video records. At the very end of Mildred's life, it emulates her deceased husband Henry, even though it only knows him from photographs and family reminiscences.
Something the android's designer, Dr. Zinta Jansons, did not program for or expect, and she's not able to duplicate in other units, is this particular unit becoming self aware. Since its self awareness developed during its service to the Owens family, Dr. Jansons decides that a continued field test is preferred to laboratory experimentation. It becomes the property of Paul and Susan. Millie, about six years old at that time, gives it the name Carey, since it is a caretaker. Paul and Susan both work long hours, so Carey has multiple duties around the house; cooking and cleaning, as well as being nanny, nursemaid, teacher, playmate and friend to Millie. She is fascinated with nature, particularly tadpoles and frogs, eventually becoming a herpetologist. The novel covers several decades, tracking Millie's childhood and adolescence, her later education, romance, marriage, children of her own. Carey has frequent examinations and material upgrades, but since it is no longer property of the company it is denied downloads of extra information packets, but it can read and learn on its own. Then an emergency arises, for which Dr. Jansons defies protocols and allows Carey to download specific medical information.
All of the family, several of the android designers, plus others Carey meets later, treat it as a person, yet Carey has trouble making that distinction itself. No matter how remarkable and advanced it is, it knows it's an android, unable to decide if it has real emotions or not. There were occasions I began to think of Carey as like a human somewhere on the autistic spectrum, extremely knowledgeable about some things, ignorant of others, awkward with human interactions in spite of its sophisticated empathy net. There's still so little we know about human consciousness, I'm sure if artificial consciousness is ever achieved it will likely have many of the same limitations. Until then, we should be aware of our own emotions, how what we think, feel, and do, affects everyone we encounter. We need to be open to other experiences, other opinions, other perspectives, conscious of other's emotional strengths and insecurites.
We must employ our own empathy net. One way to do that is reading. Paul explains fiction to Carey when Millie names it, declares it one of the family. It is at Christmas, Millie gives Carey its own stocking with its name crudely stitched. When Carey learns about Santa Claus, it tells Paul he should tell Millie the truth (which it later learns she knows already). Paul says fiction is "stories that people tell and write that they know aren't real, but they enjoy them anyway. Your emulation net lets you act like someone. That is a falsehood, isn't it?" Carey responds, "Yes, Paul, but I do it to comfort a patient." Paul — "And to understand. Fiction is our empathy net. It lets us understand other people and other experiences." This novel is an experience I enjoyed and learned from a lot, even though some scenes brought tears. Another 5 stars from me on Goodreads. Highly recommended.
Original short story, "Today I Am Paul".
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