In the not-too-distant future , Japan is faced with an aging, ailing population and a declining birth rate. With few young people willing to care for the elderly, they allow migrant workers in, with the promise of citizenship vaguely dangled in front of them. The migrant workers have a series of ridiculous and near-draconian rules and regulations placed on them, needing to navigate language testing, paying off loans, and unfair labour conditions just to survive long enough to send money back to their families abroad.
Angelica, an elder-care nurse, and her charge, Sayoko, seem like they have nothing in common, but they manage to get on well enough until Sayoko’s son orders a new gift for her: a nursing robot that could put Angelica completely out of work if she doesn’t watch out.
As a near-future story, the changes in climate, technology and culture aren’t too drastic; people are still essentially the same, but their circumstances are more dire than what we’re used to here in 2019. Many of the changes, especially in a society like Japan, seem highly plausible, but the technology and the advancements aren’t the point of this book. Plum Rains is about how these developments affect people, both older and younger, and what it means to live in a society that no longer needs you, either because you’re too old or functionally irrelevant. Romano-Lax asks how we might reconcile our own difficult past with what promises to be a difficult future, and how individuals might feel to become an obsolete. It’s at times poignant and heart wrenching, always sincerely invested in what makes the characters tick. I always felt like these were real people, even if I didn’t necessarily like all of them.
What makes this book unique in the realm of science fiction is that it is as much about the past as it is about the future, with sections devoted to Sayoko’s reminiscence about her pre-WW2 life, a time that is actually further away from us as readers than the 2029 of the main story. As an older woman with limited mobility, Sayoko lives through the little indignities of her life in the 2020s, preferring her memories of an earlier time. Thematically, Romano-Lax uses Sayoko’s relationship with her robot nurse to ask what it is to have a soul and how can both nourish and suppress one. Like the best science and speculative fiction out there, Plum Rains is about how changing technologies, corporate greed and catastrophic climate change will make us feel about our humanity.
One of my favorites of the year, for sure.