Carey is a medical care android. The interaction of its programmed empathy and its ability to emulate human responses are unique. But where is the line between software and love?
I know, I know, don’t judge a book by it’s cover – but you know that I do and if it had been down to the cover alone I would never have picked up Today I Am Carey. Thankfully I had other motivations: this is the reworking of Today, I Am Paul, a devastatingly good short story, and I was very excited to see where Martin L Shoemaker had taken it.
The first act will be familiar to anyone who has read the short story, because it is the short story. Our narrator is a geriatric care android caring for Mildred Owens through the final stages of Alzheimers. BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662 (aka Carey) is a groundbreaking prototype equipped with state of the art software. Its empathy nets pick up the tiny indicators of human emotions, and its emulation net builds profiles of its patient’s loved ones so that it can mimic them as her recall and recognition wander. At any given moment, Carey is whoever Mildred needs it to be, even capable of making cosmetic changes to its appearance in support of its performance.
To all intents and purposes, Carey becomes Mildred’s family when they aren’t with her. As her son Paul, Carey unwillingly but helplessly displays his wearied frustration with her memory lapses (although it can – at a cost – override Paul’s argumentative tendencies where it deems they would upset Mildred). As her granddaughter Anna, it can sometimes coax Mildred into the garden – or at least brighten her day by bringing in flowers. Carey understands her daughter-in-law Susan’s fear of Mildred’s condition, and synthesises her compassion.
Carey’s creator is convinced that it exceeds its programming. Its empathy net was intended to enable it to recognise and understand human responses, but she never expected the alchemy of empathy and emulation nets to make it care. Carey is driven to help people; conflicts between doing the right thing and providing comfort cause it anguish.
But when Mildred dies, Carey loses its purpose. Today, I Am Carey follows its journey through three generations of the Owens family as Carey discovers just how versatile its programming is and establishes its own identity, rather than merely emulating that of others.
At its best, this is a heart-warming saga of compassion, interspersed with poignant moments and affectionate humour. Carey can download updates to its medical databases, but it doesn’t know who Santa is or how to make a sock monkey. Learning how to win a child’s trust – and later finding a job to fill the hours when that child flies the nest – is a little more challenging, if not half as tricky as learning how to judge when something is ‘good enough’.
Carey’s life lessons give Shoemaker free rein to reinterpret the human condition in Carey’s terms. Carey may not think it understands grief or loss, but its reflection that Mildred’s ‘profile is still within me, still available, but now she is not there to add to it’ had my eyes prickling with tears. In another rather lovely metaphor, Paul explains to Carey that ‘fiction is our empathy net. It lets us understand other people and other experiences’.
Put in those terms, who can say that Carey’s feelings are less valid than our own?
“Love isn’t an attribute. It’s an action. If you act in a loving way, then you are loving, whether you’re silicone or flesh. That’s what loving is”
Today, I Am Carey is an episodic narrative: where it faltered for me was in how brief (and in some cases how mundane) some of the episodes were. By mid-way, it was beginning to feel a little flabby and I felt it suffered from a lack of narrative tension. Each challenge was either easily overcome (Belize – while initially promising – ultimately felt like a missed opportunity) or in some cases side-stepped completely (surely the insurance company should have taken issue with Carey’s involvement in Millie’s car crash). It dimmed my enthusiasm a little, although it does make this a very comforting book to dip into at the end of a difficult day. And make no mistake: as a story of how we experience, give and are shaped by love, it succeeds beautifully.
Besides, in the final act – just as I was starting to consider it might all be a bit too saccharine – Shoemaker pulled the rug from under me.
I was not ready for the feelings.
Well played, sir. Well played.
Content note: yes, I cried. Several times. Memory loss and loss of loved ones are both sore spots for me, and they are core themes throughout the novel.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Today I Am Carey is available now on Kindle, and will be released in mass market paperback from March 2nd (UK) / 31st (US).