In the not-too-distant future (it’s about ten years from now) Japan is faced with an aging, ailing population and a declining birth rate. With little they can do about it, they let in migrant workers to take care of their elders, a task most Japanese-born people don’t seem all that eager to do. The migrant workers still have a series of ridiculous and near-draconian rules and regulations placed on them, and have to navigate testing, paying off loans, and more to survive enough to send money back to their homelands and, in most cases, families.
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 care robot that could put Angelica completely out of work if she doesn’t watch out.
Because this is 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 something else can take your place and do a better job. It asks how we might reconcile a difficult past with a difficult future, and how it might feel to become an obsolete species. It’s at times poignant and heart wrenching, and always sincere and 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 it unique in the realm of science fiction is that it is as much about the past as it is about the future, as Sayoko reminisces about her pre-WW2 life, a time that is actually further away from us as readers than the 2029 of the present-day narrative, and lives through the little indignities of her life in the 2020s. The book asks it is to have a soul, and what it is to feed that soul and to suppress it, how do we raise people to be independent, to grow from childlike wonder into calculated adulthood. Like the best science and speculative fiction out there, it is about how the changes and developments in our technological abilities will make us feel about our humanity, all in the wake of sometimes catastrophic climate change and corporate greed.
One of my favorites of the year, for sure.
And can we all just agree that the name Andromeda Romano-Lax is the COOLEST FREAKING NAME?!?