Mildred is very sick. Some days she knows who she’s talking to, other days she doesn’t. But the family have invested in an android carer with a state-of-the-art empathy net, who can be anyone Mildred needs today. It will come to know all of them better than they know themselves.
Due warning: this story focuses on dementia and loss. It broke my heart into tiny little pieces by the end of the first paragraph, then gathered them back up with care and broke them again. It was not the best mental or emotional state to arrive at a client meeting in, so, err, I don’t recommend it for commuting. However, I do recommend it – highly. I like stories that give my feelings a good workout.
Our narrator is programmed for medical care and has the ability to faultlessly emulate humans it has had an opportunity to study – but these two sets of instructions can result in conflicting directives.
I cannot be disappointed, as Paul would not see the significance, but somewhere in my emulation net I am stressed that Mildred needed an IV during the night.
Consequently, it can be almost as exhausting for the android to emulate a visiting family member as it would be for that family member to actually visit.
Through a sequence of ‘visits’ – both emulated by the android and actual when members of the family pop in (although Mildred doesn’t always recognise them) – we come to understand the spectacular achievement of the empathy net. This is a beautiful piece of software, programmed to deliver excellent care and minimise any form of distress; while there was a jagged moment where I thought the family had bought their mother perfect care to excuse themselves from her bedside, I soon realised this wasn’t the case. Decline is a slow, uneven journey – Mildred’s children and grandchildren can’t be there all the time; except as far as she’s concerned, now they can.
Through the constant modelling of the empathy net, we get to observe the awful pain of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s and see the flaws and insecurities of the family under a microscope. Paul is argumentative and inobservant; Susan is wrapped up in her own terror of dementia; Anna is loving, but rarely able to visit in person. It’s hard not to judge them – they are probably doing the best they can, but it’s difficult not to think that the synthesized experiences delivered by the android are more likeable.
When Mildred is awake, the android comes to full emotional life, watching for every hint of how it can deliver better care. When she’s asleep, the empathy net switches off and it essentially loses its sentience. It needs this downtime, but it has no ‘memory’ of things that happen automatically when it runs on programming alone. It’s probably daft for me to pity it; it’s a tool deployed for a specific set of circumstances, and its empathy doesn’t appear to extend to itself (it doesn’t appear to feel loss for its fluctuating levels of sentience), but… hey, I’m a biological mess of emotion. I felt for it.
This allows Shoemaker to deliver a story that pierces the heart, looking at our reactions to degenerative disease and how our inner conflicts affect our interactions with our loved ones. It’s beautifully observed, and deeply poignant. Keep a hanky handy.
Today, I Am Paul can be read online at Clarkesworld.
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