Do Androids Dream Of Humanity And Empathy?

Do Androids Dream Of Humanity And Empathy?

Martin L. Shoemaker's debut science fiction novel, 'Today I Am Carey,' asks if robots will become part of our family in the future and, if so, can androids truly be kind or is the emulation of human feelings enough?
Clay Waters
By

Today I Am Carey is the debut novel of Martin L. Shoemaker, an expansion of his award-winning science-fiction short story “Today I Am Paul,” a warm tale about an android that mysteriously gains self-awareness as he assists a family dealing with an elderly grandmother suffering Alzheimer’s.

In the short story set in the near future, the family employs an android outfitted with new technologies of empathy and emulation, which enables it to play along with Mildred’s shifting, unpredictable memories. The android is able to change its features to emulate any members of the family that Mildred imagines she sees. It emulates her son Paul for most of the story, which explains the title.

After a tragedy, the android is accepted as part of the family and keeps the bonds of family memory alive by emulating the deceased Mildred, for the benefit of the granddaughter Millie. The optimistic, un-dystopian feel is refreshing, and the last line is lovely.

Unfortunately, the concept is stretched to novel length—65 chapters, all a variation of “Today I Am…”— and the results lean toward the sappy.

The “soft” science fiction of Today I Am Carey marks a change of pace for Baen Books, which tends toward military sci-fi (and is shunned by left-wing fandom for being the home of authors like John Ringo and Larry Correia). Carey is a hopeful domestic drama in the wistful, if sometimes overripe, tradition of Ray Bradbury.

The novel is delivered in the form of an internal journal, a literal day in the life from the caretaker android’s point of view, who early on is named “Carey” by Millie. Carey spends the novel puzzling out what has made him (Carey comes off as male) break his programming and display genuine sensitivity and kindness and above all, self-awareness.

As he tells Dr. Zinta Jansons, a.k.a. “Mom,” at the android lab, “somewhere in the interaction of those nets, ‘I’ engaged.” The science of Carey’s emergence as a personality of his own involves something about quantum entanglement that author Shoemaker perhaps wisely keeps vague, so Carey remains a mostly unexplained anomaly.

Family members grow up, get married, get old, and die, while Carey gets upgraded and becomes mildly obsolete, making for poignant asymmetry. The ravages of Alzheimer’s are portrayed honestly, with one character haunted by the genetic markers that show she will likely inherit the disease. Along the way, Carey performs a heroic rescue, makes sock monkeys for Millie, and puts on a juggling act.

Questions crop up about what makes us human: Can an android truly be kind, or is it just emulating kindness, and is there a difference in the end?

But the story doesn’t delve deeper. Potentially touchy subjects (do androids have souls? can they be “human” in a legal sense?) are not broached, as Carey’s journey to humanity is safely buffeted by well-meaning humans—too well-meaning to generate dramatic tension. And too obvious. When Carey befriends a former circus performer at an assisted living community, he comes out and tells Carey: “You care, I can tell.”

One problem is that Carey isn’t becoming fully human. To participate in the human condition comes with all the attendant weaknesses and besetting sins of envy and sloth and lust and greed; all the crooked timber of humanity. Save a brief bout of justified anger during a trip to Belize, Carey remains a perfect angel throughout.

Every garden needs a snake to keep readers on their toes. But there are no snakes, and only a few mild muffled rattles (like the trip to Belize) serve as threats. Shoemaker’s style is overly soft and spongy, making Carey’s thoughts seem bland. My dark heart longed for a little bloody-mindedness.

In robotics there is an “uncanny valley” hypothesis, which argues that in the range between “Robbie the Robot” unrealism on one end, and a robot indistinguishable from a human on the other, people feel the most disquiet toward a robot who looks and move almost, but not quite like, humans do. Android Carey falls into his own uncanny valley: He’s too bland and generic to be a compelling character, but not sufficiently utilitarian and rational to convincingly convey android behavior.

As generations age and pass on, mostly off-screen, Carey remains the faithful family caretaker. It’s nice to know that the future elderly (i.e., people like me) will be treated with dignity and respect, and perhaps not mocked for being Fox News’ main demographic. Sincerity is evident in Shoemaker’s self-described labor of “love,” which the novel’s acknowledgment page reveals is based on heart-wrenching personal experience.

But Shoemaker is vague about what this near-future looks like and how it works, besides noting that cars aren’t driven by humans much anymore. I would have liked to learn more about this world and watch how it evolves through Carey’s eyes, which would ground the reader more firmly in Carey’s reality.

Then, out of nowhere, in the very last chapter, as Carey himself ages, Shoemaker pulls a rabbit out of the hat, as all the character strands come together almost magically, and the book suddenly achieves the poignancy it had been struggling to capture. So, was the trip worth it? If you’re not a hopeless cynic, it just might be.

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