Today I Am Carey: Smart, thoughtful, and touching

Today I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsToday I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsToday I Am Carey by Martin L. Shoemaker

Carey is a robot whose job is to provide health care and companionship for humans, especially for elderly people with dementia. Carey is equipped with an “empathy net” which allows him to understand the feelings of the people he cares for, and an “emulation net” which lets him change his appearance, voice, and mannerisms so he can pretend to be someone else. The purpose is to help ease the anxieties of patients with dementia.

When we first meet Carey, he is the caretaker for an elderly woman named Mildred. Her husband is dead and her children and grandchildren, who have jobs and school, can’t be with her all day. When Mildred gets confused and thinks she’s talking to one of them, Carey can morph into a fairly accurate simulation so that he can soothe her better than any other hired caretaker could.

Unexpectedly, Carey has become conscious, something he wonders about and discusses with his creator, Dr. Zinta. It could be the empathy net that caused consciousness to emerge, but it hasn’t happened to any of the other caretaker androids that were created at the same time, and Dr. Zinta has not been able to recreate consciousness in any other robot, though she has tried for years.

When Mildred dies, her family decides to keep Carey because he has become part of the family. This is fine with Dr. Zinta because if Carey was transferred to a different family, his data would have to be reset and she is afraid he will lose sentience and she won’t be able to figure out what caused it to emerge.

Martin L. Shoemaker

Martin L. Shoemaker

So, Carey stays with Mildred’s family for decades, taking on different caretaking roles as needed throughout the years. He is there for them during the good and the bad times, often influencing the course of their lives. Meanwhile, he remains friends with Dr. Zinta who continues to study him.

Today I Am Carey (2019) is Martin L. Shoemaker’s debut novel. It’s based on his 2015 short story “Today I Am Paul,” a story about Carey that I use as part of an assignment in one of my neuroscience courses. Students love the short story — it’s useful for beginning to think about empathy, ethics, artificial intelligence, memory, and consciousness.

The novel is even better, since it gives Shoemaker more space to develop these ideas and to make them more meaningful by giving us time to get attached to Carey and his family. It’s fascinating, instructive, and often amusing to watch Carey face ethical dilemmas such as how to balance accurate emulation with real empathy. For example (and this is in the short story), if he accurately emulates Mildred’s son Paul, he should sound irritated with Mildred’s confusion, but his empathy net feels the need to soothe Mildred instead of upset her with Paul’s irritation. But if he doesn’t display Paul’s real personality, will that confuse and upset Mildred further?

Is Carey a person? Dr. Zinta thinks so and Carey’s family certainly treats him like one. Carey isn’t so sure. He knows he isn’t naturally creative and he doesn’t appreciate art or metaphor, but if he is emulating someone else, he begins to understand these higher concepts and even to display them. Eventually Dr. Zinta figures out why Carey is conscious and I thought her explanation made sense.

By the end of the novel, I had fallen in love with Carey and, through his empathetic understanding of his family, I came to care for them, too. (As Paul tells Carey, “Fiction is our empathy net. It lets us understand other people and other experiences.”) There are so many touching scenes in Today I Am Carey and, at the end, which I thought was brilliant, I was in tears.

There’s a lot to think about in Today I Am Carey and this is a novel I’m sure to read again someday. The audio edition by Recorded Books is narrated by John Skelley who makes a convincing android. I loved his performance and recommend this version.

Published in 2019. REMARKABLE DEBUT NOVEL FROM CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED AUTHOR MARTIN L. SHOEMAKER. Shoemaker proves why he has consistently been praised as one of the best story writers in SF today with this touching, thoughtful, action-packed debut novel, based on his award-winning short story Today I am Paul. TODAY. Mildred has Alzheimer’s. As memories fade, she acquires the aid of a full-time android to assist her in everyday life. Carey. Carey takes care of Mildred, but its true mission is to fill in the gaps in Mildred’s past. To bring yesterday into today by becoming a copy. But not merely a copy of a physical person. A copy from the inside out. I AM. After Mildred passes, Carey must find a new purpose. For a time, that purpose is Mildred’s family. To keep them safe from harm. To be of service. There is Paul Owens, the overworked scientist and business leader. Susan Owens, the dedicated teacher. And Millie, a curious little girl who will grow up alongside her android best friend. And Carey will grow up with her. Carey cannot age. But Carey can change. CAREY. Carey struggles. Carey seeks to understand life’s challenges. Carey makes its own path. Carey must learn to live. To grow. To care. To survive. To be..

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. Wow. I have to read this now. I’m pretty sure I read “Today I am Paul.” This sounds like a great premise, thoughtfully realized.

  2. This sounds great! Thanks for this review, Kat!

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