This month we’re looking at Martin L. Shoemaker’s “Today I am Paul” which originally appeared in Clarkesworld. This is a lovely story that plays right into one of my favorite SF tropes to see, the android intersecting with human emotions it can’t actually feel. I’m on the record with the last moment of this scene being one of the best ever aired on television.
I like this trope because it forces the audience to do all the emotional work for the character, and when that emotional work is sadness it makes the media in question sadistic in a way I fully support 1000% in all art forms. Also, I’m a sucker for things that make people sad.
Which is a long way of saying that I’d be a fan of “Today I am Paul” even if it weren’t super well done because it’s all about doing things I like my fiction to do. However, it is super well done, which means it’s a great candidate for putting through the Crucible.
I want to focus in particular on how Shoemaker develops the audience’s investment in the Caretaker right off the bat. Getting initial buy in from the audience is easy with this premise; we have a character who definitionally has no character flaws of its own, engaged in a selfless task that needs to be done, and doing it with care and patience literally unavailable elsewhere. Audiences in general are as much of a sucker for a selfless do gooder as I am for a sadistic narrative, so that’s an easy win. Kindergarteners frequently have that level of craft nailed. Where Shoemaker starts showing off is with the introduction of Paul’s flaws.
My emulation net responds before I can stop it: “Paul” sighs. Mildred’s memory lapses used to worry him, but now they leave him weary, and that comes through in my emulation.
This line does two things. First, it fleshes out the already introduced concept of the conflict between the android when it is engaged in emulation and when it isn’t. We already know that it thoughtlessly engages in medical care for Mildred when she’s not conscious, and becoming aware of that care distresses it when she is. That builds a layer of tragedy into the androids circumstances that doesn’t have to be there. Its presence, however, heightens the weight of its reactions to these things. The disconnect between doing the actions and responding to them lets the audience get those reactions at a time where Shoemaker is madly spilling exposition to explain the world and premise, and creates a sense of vulnerability in the android. In the moment where we’re reading, the android cares about Mildred, and the knowledge that its ability to continue caring for her is outside of its control is distressing.
The second thing the line does is start to show Paul’s warts without condemning him for them. It’s clear the android recognizes the sub-optimality of Paul’s reaction; that’s why there’s a question of stopping the response. Yet, fidelity to the emulation of Mildred’s loved ones trumps optimal behavior, and android-Paul sighs. The narrative could have left it there, but instead it explains the motivation behind the sigh. It’s a natural thing for the android to do; emulation would require a level of empathy that understands the underlying motivations for things. But even then, the explanation could simply be, “Mildred’s memory lapses leave him weary and frustrated.” That explains the current state of Paul, which is what the android is emulating. The historical note, the detail that this is worry transmuted, is a kindness. It takes the android’s empathy from audience-manipulation 101 into a deep, subtle territory that gives the story permission to go further.
These two things together fulfill an important function in the story. The theme of being worn down by caring for another is hard baked into the premise. Mildred’s family aren’t callous or unfeeling. A lot of the early exposition in the story goes to great lengths to establish that. They’re throwing money at the problem, yes, but they aren’t doing that in lieu of an investment of time and feelings. There are human caretakers coming in as well. They visit in person. They call. Everyone loves Mildred, even as there’s less and less of Mildred to love. The android, with its expensive empathy net upgrades, is an expression of that. But, and the quoted line above makes it clear, it isn’t exempt from that trap.
I sit on the bed, lift her frail upper body, and pull her close to me as I had seen Henry do many times. “It’s all right, hon.” I pat her back. “It’s all right, I’ll take care of you. I won’t leave you, not ever.”
I’m just quoting that line because it’s a really great gut punch to end a scene on. Look at it. Dead husband, who the android knew, hugging his wife and promising he’ll never leave her. And the android makes the switch both without missing a beat, and without even wanting a pat on the back for it. That isn’t just good caretaking, it’s caretaking literally nobody else in Mildred’s life could pull off. If it had actually been Paul, he’d be helpless.
Instead, Shoemaker stabs you in the gut and simultaneously introduces the idea that the success of the final image in the story hinges on: the joy in being able to preserve relationships with the people you’ve lost.
Because she never voices this fear, Paul and Anna do not understand why she is sometimes bitter and sullen. I wish I could explain it to them, but my privacy protocols do not allow me to share emulation profiles.
Paul is where the story demonstrates its intent to dig deep into audience manipulation via deep empathy, but Susan is where it runs away with it. In her own way, Susan is the most affected by Mildred’s condition. The others see her suffer and hurt by their loss of somebody they care about and their relationship with them. Susan, on the other hand, sees Mildred as a possible reflection of herself. To Paul and Anna, Mildred is mother and grandmother. To Susan, she is the same person. This is reinforced with the details about Paul’s explanation for the lack of closeness between Mildred and Susan. But that’s another angle where the depth of the android’s empathy for others gets highlighted; Paul has known for years that his wife and mother are similar, and he’s completely missing what that means for Susan’s response to his mother’s decline. Not that we blame him. We’ve got great insight into his own struggle, which makes it easy to forgive his obliviousness to others’.
But Susan also gets the distinction of being the one who surprises the android, later. It doesn’t predict a display of physical affection from Susan. Granted, it’s not the android qua android who is surprised, but the android as Henry. For the reader, though? There isn’t a difference at that point, because the android is, to us, his reactions and responses when his nets are engaged. The android is a person. Even the android has figured that out by that point. But he’s a person with very little control over who he is. Like the rest of us, frankly, but it doesn’t even get to pretend it has control. Humans like our pretends. It hurts to see somebody who can’t have them.
We get the heroic rescue scene where the android puts itself at great risk to save Mildred, struggling all the while to do it without upsetting her, and this story could have very easily ended with, “And then I was so damaged that I was shut down and disposed of. The end.” As a known lover of the sad, tragic ending, you might even expect me to be in favor of that ending instead. I’m not. The ending the story has is absolutely the correct one. Not because anybody in the story intrinsically deserves a happy ending, or because my recent experience of a super awesome insurance payout that made everything great has me forgiving of it as a convenient device in fiction. It works because this isn’t a story about an android selflessly caring for a Alzheimer’s patient. It’s a story about the strain and exhaustion of loving an Alzheimer’s patient. The android takes damage in the fire not to introduce the the possibility of it’s “death” but to mark the damage that comes from a life dedicated entirely to caretaking. Is it an accident that it functionally spends all its time after Mildred’s death sleeping? No. Poor thing is exhausted.
If the android died, or the story left us with it resting in its alcove, this story would be a warning. Drop gandma in a home and run, it would say. There’s no reward, flee. That’s too easy. That would put us back in audience manipulation 101 territory because, sure, it’s a little radical and controversial to say cut your losses and run but it’s also simple. Life is rarely simple, and a sad ending that hinges on simplicity is just as weak and disappointing as a happy ending that does the same, even if it’s a less common failure. (I suspect there’s sampling bias at work there, but that’s a different discussion.) Instead of the simple ending with the tragically damaged, exhausted android, we get this:
We built a bridge to the far side of the creek; and on the other side, we’re planting daisies. Today she asked me to tell her about her grandmother.
Today I am Mildred.
Bridge building. Planting new life. And the android gets to be the person it misses, keeping her and connecting with her in the best, the only way it has. Would it be happier of the android could be a person in its own right, instead of an ur-person composed of characters it embodies? Yes. Would it be happier if it had managed to save Mildred and cure Alzheimer’s and clear up the misunderstandings and lack of communication in the people around it? Totally. This is not a sugar-coated happy ending. But it’s an earned ending. It’s a justified ending. It’s an ending that, like the story that precedes it, is chock full of empathy and caring for the people pulled into this sort of care and battered in the process. It’s not the end all and be all of wish fulfillment happiness, but it’s a complex and realistic answer to the story’s thematic premise. And like its protagonist, it’s kind.
Next month: Damage, David D. Levine (Tor.com)