Thursday, August 27, 2015

Today I Am Paul, by Martin L. Shoemaker

Read this issue
Alzheimer's patient's family can't visit her very often, so they buy a robot to fool her into thinking they're visiting her. The robot tells the story. (4,920 words; Time: 16m)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆, Not Recommended
Recommended By: SFRevu:5 GDozois:5 RHorton:5

"," by , appeared in Clarkesworld issue 107, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: The story makes the robot into an incredibly sympathetic character. The irony is that the robot is a better person than any of the family members, and the old woman actually is better served by having it with her.

Con: Probably the biggest problem with this story is that it describes the life of a happy slave, and that fails the disbelief test. Since the story has proven to be so popular, I'll expand on this.

Even though the narrator is supposed to be a robot, the character is indistinguishable from a human being, minus the references to "nets" and such. An entity that really did feel and act like this robot would be a person in any meaningful sense of the word, and enslaving it would be wrong. The fact that they treat their slave like part of the family, even allowing it to be present at the mother's death, does not make it better.

Yet this sensitive, intelligent being is quite content to be a slave, much as the "main Dish of the Day" in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams was an intelligent animal bred so that it wanted to be eaten. Just as there's something disturbing about a creature enthusiastically telling you how great its different parts will taste, so too there's something disturbing about a story written from the point of view of a person who just wants to be a slave.

From a technology angle, the story is a disaster. It's loaded with nonsense infodumps that don't advance the plot--they just destroy disbelief for anyone with any knowledge in the field. For example, the author talks a lot about different kinds of "nets" but clearly has no understanding at all of how a computer perceptron network actually operates.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites

7 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I'd rate it a 3, ordinary. I agree with the mini-review's pro and con, but weigh the former over the latter. As a software engineer, I found the continuous self-analysis of the AI kept disrupting my enjoyment of the story. I'd feel the same way about a story that kept explaining faster-than-light travel every few paragraphs with nonsense science, rather than just state that it works at the start with no explanation and moves on.

    1. A week has passed and it's still on my mind now and then, so I'd bump my rating up to 4 (recommended), despite the AI bits that annoyed me. It's thought-provoking because it's made me really think about how one should interact with Alzheimers patients. I've read articles from medical, caretaker and societal perspectives, but none that give advice on whether one should play along and treat the patient like a child (like the AI) or if one should correct the patient so they can value the time remaining with the actual visitor (but risk heartache).

  2. From a Healthcare SF genre perspective, this is a really good story. I really enjoyed it and found it very touching.

    1. But did you find it touching on behalf of the people in the story or on behalf of the robot?

  3. I found it touching from a humanitarian perspective.

    Mildred was able to have as peaceful a death as possible under the circumstances.

    Sorry about the late reply. I was still doing Hugo reading until a few days ago.

  4. I'm really late here, but I only read this story this week after I heard someone raving about how wonderful it was. I thought it was well written, but the main character wasn't very interesting. The "happy slave" view is interesting, and one I hadn't considered. You make a good point there. It is a little uncomfortable when you look at it that way.

    My issue with the story was with the main character, and was the same as with the main character in Mono no Aware, and the mother in The Paper Menagerie. To me they are all Super Christs. One way or the other they are all content to allow themselves to get crucified for the benefit of other (often uncaring and undeserving) people. I see them as “super” because they seem to be even more Christ-like than Jesus Christ. Even Jesus got angry, and had his moment of doubt, but there is none of that with these stories. To me it makes for uninteresting reading.

    These characters seem to come up again and again in recent years, and people really seem to connect with them. It’s maybe taking it a bit too far, but I can’t help but wonder if these stories would do as well if the contest was held in a place that didn’t have a history of Christian thought, and the stories of the New Testament weren’t so tightly woven into the fabric of the culture.

  5. You're kinder than I am; I think a lot of people liked this story because they'd like to own a slave just like this. They don't put it that way, of course, but when someone says "Oh, it would be wonderful to have someone like that taking care of you," then the conclusion is hard to avoid.

    Still, this was one of the most highly recommended stories of the year, so mine is very much a minority point of view.