I picked up "Plum Rains" because the premise interested me: a near-future Japan where longevity is rising, fertility is falling and the Japanese, dependent on immigrants for many personal services, start to introduce AI-driven robots that grow and learn as they interact with their owners.
I'd imagined a clever SF exploration of the ethics of AI and the relationship between server and served.
I got all of that but I'm also got a very human tale about the youth of a woman reaching one hundred who is now a respected Tokyo matron but started as a mixed-race aboriginal on Taiwan and about a Filipino nurse, alone in Japan, trying to work off her debt.
What distinguishes "Plum Rains" is how strongly the imagined Japan of 2029 is fed by its deep roots in Japanese history over the past century and that the story is told from different Asian cultural viewpoints.
The language is beautiful in its accurate simplicity. The empathy and compassion with which the two woman are treated and the nuanced way in which their changing understand or their past, present, future and each other is handled make this a very human book.
There are hard issues in this book: the brutal way women are treated, our inability or at least unwillingness to confront hard truths, the crippling impact of shame, the compelling drive of motherhood, the emotional stunting that results from isolation, chosen or forced, and the freedom that comes from recognising that we are not irreplaceable. They form the emotional and ethical meat of the novel. The role of the AI in the book is mainly to provide an empathetic ear to the two women and to help them focus on the decision that will help them become the people they want to be.
I was impressed by the understanding shown in the book of what an AI might become in ten years time and the ethical and practical challenges that their existence would present. I liked the fact that while the AI is presented positively as a sentient entity growing towards maturity, it is never seen as simply a digital human. Its intelligence, its motivations and its agenda are influenced by the people who made it but not defined by them. There are points when the AI seems more humane than the humans around him but that simply highlights how deluded we are willing to be about what it means to be human. There are also points where the AI is shown as a clear threat to the employment of some of the most vulnerable people in society. I liked that this threat was confirmed rather than dispelled but that it arises because those who make the employment decisions see workers as commodities and see robots as better and cheaper commodities.
Unlike the author, I know almost nothing of Asian culture, so I can't speak to the authenticity of what's presented here but I can see how different the expectations and outcomes are than they would be of a similar book set in the West. Both of the women in the book accept that the world is a harsh place where they often cannot control damaging things that are done to them or that they have to do. They have no expectation of a happy-ever-after. They understand duty and family but they recognise that they may not be able to live up the demands of either. Yet they are strong. They persevere. They take the moments of life-affirming sweetness where they find them, without any expectation that they will last.
I think this last expectation is what the title "Plum Rains" refers to. At one point the Filipina nurse recalls the story her mother had told of what giving birth to her had meant:
"She had grown in her belly during the plum rains, that long period of rainy, moldy misery that ends, finally, in something good: summer, when the skies briefly clear again, before the typhoons come. You were the good thing, small and sweet, that comes after a long period of difficulty."
That concept of transitory happiness, made more valuable by being ephemeral, seems realistic to me. It's something that I've seen built-in to French culture, yet it is deeply at odds with the Anglo obsession with the pursuit of happiness.
This was a wonderful book. It made me think and it made me cry. My only criticism is that the pace of the first third of the book was slower than my Western reading habits have led me to expect. I stuck with it and I'm very glad that I did. "Plum Rains" now joins my (very short list) of the best AI speculative fiction.
About Andromeda Romano-Lax
Andromeda's website says:
"Originally from Chicago and now a resident of Vancouver Island, Canada, Andromeda Romano-Lax worked as a freelance journalist and travel writer before turning to fiction.
Her first novel, The Spanish Bow, was translated into eleven languages and was chosen as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, BookSense pick, and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her second novel, The Detour, was internationally published in 2012 and her third novel, Behave, was published in 2016.
Her fourth novel, Plum Rains, drew inspiration from her family's experience living in rural Taiwan in 2014."
"In a tour-de-force tapestry of science fiction and historical fiction, Andromeda Romano-Lax presents a story set in Japan and Taiwan that spans a century of empire, conquest, progress and destruction.
2029: In Japan, a historically mono-cultural nation, childbirth rates are at an all-time low and the elderly are living increasingly longer lives. This population crisis has precipitated the mass immigration of foreign medical workers from all over Asia, as well as the development of finely tuned artificial intelligence to step in where humans fall short.
In Tokyo, Angelica Navarro, a Filipina nurse works as caretaker for Sayoko Itou, a moody, secretive woman about to turn 100 years old. When Sayoko receives a cutting-edge robot “friend” that will teach itself to anticipate Sayoko’s every need, Angelica fears for her livelihood. But more than a mere job is at stake, especially given the robot's preternatural ability to uncover the most deeply buried secrets of the humans around it.
PLUM RAINS is a hundred-year saga of forbidden love, hidden identities, the legacy of colonialism and the future of our relationships in a distracted and uncertain world. "