A decent respect for readers and book buyers requires I explain why I requested a review copy of this book from Amazon.
Japan, unlike many nations of the advanced Western world, has not been stupid enough to allow a great deal of immigration. They don’t buy that they need immigrants to pay old age pensions or do menial jobs or that large amounts of unskilled labor are going to make them wealthy.
They like their culture just fine. They’re not even fond of ethnic Japanese who didn’t grow up in Japan.
I like Japan’s refusal to embrace ethnomasochism. (Why, yes, that is a mound of Korean noses, and, no, we’re not going to apologize.)
Now, like anything, that can go to extremes as in this book, but I find it preferable to the opposite extreme.
The Japanese, though, have a problem. They’re dying off, births aren’t keeping up with deaths.
So whose going to take care of all those Japanese in their golden years if not immigrants?
Robots, answer the Japanese, and that is the very subject of this, according to its cover copy, “tour de force tapestry of science fiction and historical fiction”.
Review: Plum Rains, Andromeda Romano-Lax, 2018.
This novel centers on two characters: Sayoko, a Japanese woman nearing her centenary (and the attendant media coverage of that birthday), and Angelica, the Filipina immigrant nurse caring for her.
It’s the year 2029. Robot development has taken a “Pause” after the Musk-Hawking 2015 letter warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence. There was the South Korean Sexbot Ban of 2025 and the E.U.-U.S. AI Accord of 2026 (rather short-lived since the E.U. goes into the ashbin of history in 2027). Other regional agreements put similar bans in place.
But it’s just a pause, and that’s made clear when a new model of Taiwanese robot shows up to take care of the rather technophobic Sayoko. It’s was ordered by Itou, Sayoko’s son and employed by METI, according to some the government agency that really runs Japan.
The best part of the book is that robot, Hiro, and his conversations with Sayoko and Angelica. Hiro is not a programmed robot. He’s designed to learn and, particularly, learn about his charge Sayoko.
Romano-Lax does a credible job describing the Japan of 10 years from now. As now, immigrant nurses have to keep up on their medical Japanese and are tested regularly. To that, the Japanese have developed a sophisticated monitoring network to meet the needs of the natives and keep an eye on the foreigners.
This being a literary novel, there’s lots of trips back to the main characters’ past and a gradual reveal of their secrets. One of those, revealed early on, is that Sayoko is at least half Taiwanese, and we hear about her childhood during the Japanese occupation of that island.
There are, of course, subsidiary characters: Junichi, Angelica’s lover and a co-worker of Itou; Rene, an African working as a physical therapist in Japan; and Datu, Angelica’s ne’er-do-well older brother. He works in the BZ, a heavy metals mining area in Alaska – that’s BZ as in “Burned Zone”, a cordon sanitaire that killed most of the animals in Alaska to prevent the spread of bird flu.
A question I had is why go to the work of hiring people to be poisoned slowly in the BZ when robot technology is increasing in sophistication. However, Romano-Lax handles the technological extrapolation fairly well.
However, as a science fiction reader, I thought this book could have been tightened up considerably with shorter passages about Sayoko’s and Angelica’s early lives. Some descriptions could have used just one, not three, similes to present a picture.
The central conflict of the story, robots or humans to care for older Japanese, is well shown in Angelica’s mixed feelings about Hiro. After all, Hiro is potentially her replacement, and she needs the job to pay Datu’s and hers debts to a Filipino loan shark.
But Romano-Lax dilutes and cheapens that conflict by bringing in an element that makes the future of Japanese elder care as robots or humans an unlikely either-or dilemma because pollution has rendered most Japanese infertile. Thus, the normal solution, up that birth rate, is taken off the table.
There is also the question of the book’s concluding tone. Sinister implications of robot technology rub shoulders with some cyberpunk hero story. It’s almost as if sequels are planned. Though, that said, I might read such a sequel since I didn’t dislike this novel – just thought it unnecessarily rigged its central dilemma and was too long in parts. Part of that change is encoded in the metaphor of the title. The “plum rains” of Taiwan are the dreary season of rains followed by spring.
Finally, it must be said that, while it’s fairly obvious that Romano-Lax comes down on the notion that Japan needs more immigrants, she’s not heavy-handed about it. And she has presented a story with some nice ruminations on sacrifice, need, and love.
Spoilers and After Thoughts
The last part of this book deals with Sayoko’s past as a “comfort woman”. (Sayoko has lied about her origins and age. She’s actually 110.) Again, though, Romano-Lax’s touch is fairly light. But Sayoko calls for an explicit avowal of Japan’s misbehavior in the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Unintended pregnancies play a part in this novel. Sayoko, in her youth, became pregnant by her first love, a Japanese man. Angelica becomes pregnant by Junichi, and the novel ends with Hiro and Angelica planning to bust her baby out of a hospital where it was placed since, as a guest worker, Angelica isn’t even supposed to be pregnant and Junichi wants the child since his wife can’t carry to term.
Those sinister implications? Hiro is a test-bed for a new type of robot Itou wants to use to force revision of international agreements on AI. Hiro, in his ever helpful and curious ways, breaks protocols and communicates with other AI robot prototypes.
They are not like him and may prove a menace to humanity, eliminators of competition. The question is whether humans will seek dominance or cooperation.