In a tour-de-force tapestry of science fiction and historical fiction, Andromeda Romano-Lax presents a story set in Japan and Taiwan that spans a century of empire, conquest, progress, and destruction.
2029: In Japan, a historically mono-cultural nation, childbirth rates are at an all-time low and the elderly are living increasingly longer lives. This population crisis has precipitated the mass immigration of foreign medical workers from all over Asia, as well as the development of finely tuned artificial intelligence to step in where humans fall short.
In Tokyo, Angelica Navarro, a Filipina nurse who has been in Japan for the last five years, works as caretaker for Sayoko Itou, a moody, secretive woman about to turn 100 years old. One day, Sayoko receives a present: a cutting-edge robot “friend” that will teach itself to anticipate Sayoko’s every need. Angelica wonders if she is about to be forced out of her much-needed job by an inanimate object—one with a preternatural ability to uncover the most deeply buried secrets of the humans around it. Meanwhile, Sayoko becomes attached to the machine. The old woman has been hiding secrets of her own for almost a century—and she’s too old to want to keep them anymore.
What she reveals is a hundred-year saga of forbidden love, hidden identities, and the horrific legacy of WWII and Japanese colonialism—a confession that will tear apart her own life and Angelica’s. Is the helper robot the worst thing that could have happened to the two women—or is it forcing the changes they both desperately needed?
About the author
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow, a New York Times Editors' Choice that has been translated into 11 languages, The Detour, and Behave, as well as numerous works of nonfiction. She teaches creative writing and is a co-founder of 49 Writers, a statewide literary organization. She lives on Vancouver Island.
Excerpt: Plum Rains (by (author) Andromeda Romano-Lax)
Angelica was hurrying toward the crowded crosswalk, determined to get back to her elderly client Sayoko-san before the deliveryman arrived, when the view of buildings and business suits in front of her dissolved.
The heart of Tokyo at 4:07 p.m., improbably on pause. A sharp whine and then static; a muffled white-noise pulse.
Three throbbing beats. Then silence.
Someone else might have thought: terrorism. But Angelica’s mind reeled back only to what she’d known personally, growing up in the rural Philippines: the chaos of nature itself.
Not again—the first thought of anyone who has lived through tremors, tsunamis and typhoons. Her fingers went to the tiny gold cross at her throat.
Angelica did not stagger so much as melt. The concrete smacked her cheekbone just as the light seemed to leak out of the world. She took the biggest breath she could, like a diver preparing to go under, filling her lungs with the last clean air she might ever have, while behind closed eyelids, images from her childhood formed: looking up through the rubble to the gray Cebu sky, one arm protecting her head, one hand trapped, the other free, dusty fingers struggling to flex above the ruin. Tabang! Help!
But then: veins relaxed. Oxygen flowed. The past burrowed back under its dirty blankets, its broken pipes and dust. The Philippine island of Cebu on that day over thirty years ago was only a memory.
The light returned, soft and spotty at first, and then too bright. She squinted toward the curb, two meters away, and the street beyond, where whisper-quiet cars eased through the busy intersection.
Get up. Get up. But she couldn’t. Her head was too heavy. The hiss in her ears was fading, but only slowly. Her leg was abraded from the fall, only a little, but it stung. A moan escaped from her lips, equal parts pain and simple embarrassment.
Without lifting her face, Angelica could see businessmen’s loafers and women’s low-heeled pumps moving steadily past, pausing, moving again as the light changed. When she rolled to one side to look up, a woman wearing a germ-blocking face mask met her glance with an apologetic bow and then kept going.
A whisper of wind against thigh warned that her skirt was up, her panties exposed. She’d meant to buy new underwear this spring and never had. Too broke and too busy studying for the next Japanese language proficiency exam. Last night, she had stayed up two extra hours and nodded off with her phone in her hand, kanji quiz app open, unfamiliar characters swimming through her dreams.
She wasn’t the only one struggling. Ask the other Filipino nurses, the West African physical therapists, the Indonesian caregivers. Ask anyone in her position: trying to learn fast enough to pass the latest JLPT, trying to avoid unsafe jobs and the loan sharks back home, trying to avoid being sent back at the wrong time, always keeping the door open to returning at the right time.
But still, it could have been worse. Instead of dull gray hip huggers with a worn-out elastic band, she could have been wearing the weirdly juvenile underwear her sometimes-lover Junichi had bought her. A forty-three-year-old Filipina should not be caught wearing a Hello Kitty thong.
The blood was returning to Angelica’s head now. She needed only to lie on her back and let the spinning stop. She had been hurrying and worrying about something—and not only kanji.
The deliveryman. That was why she had been rushing, why she had ignored the mounting headache, the prickly flush behind her knees, the feeling of unmanaged anxiety—an army of tiny ants creeping across her scalp. Her body had been trying to tell her: Eat something. Breathe. Put your head between your knees.
But there’d been no time. Minutes earlier, while waiting in a noodle shop for Junichi (late as usual; probably not even coming) she’d received a text from the agency relief nurse, Phuong Pham: Leaving early. Sayoko is fine. I have emergency.
When Angelica had texted back, You can’t. Wait until I get there, she’d received no further reply. She had set off toward the Itou family’s luxury condo at a worried trot, throat constricting, scalp crawling.
At any moment, the deliveryman would be ringing the buzzer, having been assured that someone reliable would be there to greet him. Sayoko would be confused. Unless the old woman had thrown a tea towel over every eldercam eyespot in the house, Angelica’s phone would automatically fill up with images of an agitated lady, rolling back and forth toward the door in her outmoded wheelchair. If Sayoko’s blood pressure plunged or her heartrate increased past a certain point, programmed alarms would sound on her son’s phone, even as he sat in an important business meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Ryo Itou might think it was a serious emergency. Worst of all, Sayoko herself would be afraid and alone. Angelica knew how time could change in that kind of situation: how anxiety opened the door to a lonely eternity.
Angelica closed her eyes.
Then opened them, a moment later, to see a white, concave disk as wide as her shoulders, hovering just above her face.
“I’m fine,” she said as she tried to turn away from the public health device. “I have to get up.”
“Please, remain still,” the machine responded.
The disk’s white wings angled down toward either side of her head, granting some small measure of privacy, a comfort more for bystanders who could hurry by with less guilt, even if their questions remained. Had they been standing close to her at the last crosswalk? Would there be some new outbreak announced on the evening news?
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she said.
A cuff tightened automatically around Angelica’s arm. A black weight, no larger than a change purse but hard and heavy, vibrated threateningly against her sternum. Thrusting her chin down into her neck, she just managed to see the unit’s flickering red light, but only until the next instrument moved into place.
“I have low blood pressure,” she said, before a rubber ring lowered around her mouth and sealed tight.
The kenkobot was just doing its job. There was no way out—only through. For one claustrophobia-inducing minute as she waited for the test to finish, Angelica tried to distract herself—tried, even, to see the value in the situation.
This would be a story to tell her brother, Datu. She would confess about the underwear. Yes, all the businessmen were staring. Whether or not it was true, just to make him laugh. So he could moan and answer: Nena, don’t tell me that. Take care of yourself. Buy new underwear at least. You’ve always been such a miser. As if being a big spender was any better. Even when they were kids, he’d been unable to hold onto what the charity sisters gave him long enough to pay their school fees. Every coin went to candy and chips, later to beer, and then they’d sell gasoline from a plastic soda bottle to passing tricycle drivers who could only afford a splash at a time. Stand at the corner, wave them down, waggle your hips, he’d say, sitting on the dusty shoulder, in the shade. Or at least waggle the place you’ll someday have hips. He was four years older, and cool. She had always admired his fearlessness, his reckless dreams—I’ll be the first off the island, and I’ll be the first back home, rich and ready for the good life—and even when their other three siblings had been alive, they were the closest.
Datu. She would text him this weekend and insist: not just audio. Video. Even if it couldn’t be in real time. I want to see you.
Finally, the kenkobot finished its task and the rubber ring around her mouth lifted away, leaving its chemical smell and a feeling of pressure under her nose and over her chin. She’d have an indent above her lip for a few hours, a rash on her chin later. Small price to pay for state-of-the-art diagnostics, or so the kenkobot advocates would say.
“I had sake on an empty stomach,” she told the unit. That part was true. At the noodle shop, she’d tossed back a single tiny cup before dashing out the door. “I’m a nurse. I know I’m fine.”
She wasn’t quite sure. But that was her business. Later there would be time to consider the symptoms, allowing some possibilities to flit across her mind and deliberately blocking others that were too frightening or simply unlikely. Nurses did that, too. Easier to treat than to be treated.
One thing she knew for sure: she wasn’t as resilient as she used to be. Not so long ago she’d been able to juggle more uncertainties—Junichi not showing up for a date; Datu possibly trying to hide that he was sick; a borderline exam score—with only a passing sense of worry or irritation. But now, every stressor triggered something physical: Breathlessness. Dizziness. Psoriasis at her hairline or a rash across her chest. Her body was shouting what her mind didn’t care to admit: it was too much, sometimes. She had a better situation than most, but things weren’t getting easier.
The kenkobot recited her name, her age, her nationality, her physical address. Even the expiry date on her visa. The machine’s volume seemed to increase with that last detail.
Was it all correct?
Yes. Of course.
Did she want to add additional contact information? No thank you. She wanted only to leave.
A list of medications was reviewed, patient history rapidly taken.
Symptoms, permission to access recent food purchase data, confirmation that she had not eaten any tainted food products purchased by others.
Still menstruating? No—sorry, sometimes. Irregularly.
Fertility therapy? No.
Sexually active? Is that really necessary?
Sexually active? Yes.
Travel outside Japan? Not since moving here.
When, precisely? Five years ago.
Sixty months? Let me see . . . fifty-eight.
Interactions with other foreigners? Only other healthcare professionals. Documented, healthy people.
From? Vietnam, China, West Africa . . .
And from the Philippines? The machine already had her travel records and general personal data, of course.
When she took too long, it asked again: Interactions with citizens of the Philippines?
She thought of her nursing friend Yanna, who had come with her, from Cebu, and then, despite threats from the moneylenders she still owed back home, had unwisely decided to return. You can go home if you’re paid up. You can risk a trip if you’ve got an envelope full of cash, ready to negotiate the moment they hear you’re back. What you can’t do is return home more broke than when you left, having flouted every payment date you were given. Yanna had known that. And still.
Angelica answered the kenkobot, “Not many.”
“Please,” the kenkobot said. Always polite. A flexible perimeter rose around her with a gentle hiss as air inflated the soft, low barrier, each corner marked with a winking blue caution light. “Relax and remain still. With permission granted, final diagnostics will take only three minutes.”
A stranger had accidentally kicked her right shoe and now it rested several meters away on the street beside the curb. Good nursing shoes in her extra-small size were hard to find. Any small shoes were hard to find. In Cebu and Manila, she had often searched through children’s departments, but here in Japan, where the infertility epidemic was severe, children’s shops were becoming rare, and the clothes they carried were infantile, part of a national obsession with things cute and riotously colorful. Each passing tire missed the simple white shoe only by centimeters.
She was asked a list of questions, seeking permission for each further invasion. A needle pinched the soft skin of her inner elbow. A chilled puff of air blew against her eye. A swab pushed stealthily into her nose and then retreated.
“I’m a little cold,” she said, trying to reach a hand down to adjust her skirt and cover her thigh.
“Ninety-eight point eight degrees. Normal. Estimated time for transportation—”
“Not necessary,” she said. But it, not she, would make that determination. With any luck, the nearest clinics were overbooked and the directive would be to release her, barring any indication of communicable disease.
“Please wait,” the kenkobot said.
All this technology and she’d willingly trade it for a rolled-up towel placed under her neck and a simple blanket draped over her legs. All this so-called progress and what she needed was a kind word in a human voice.
“Please wait,” the kenkobot repeated.
Technology alone, no matter how efficient, however seemingly foolproof, could never suffice. Any good nurse knew that. And with that thought, Angelica experienced the first sense of calm she’d felt all day, the certainty providing a visceral comfort: she knew things. She was a professional. She was needed, in this day and age more than ever, when so much of life was automated and impersonal. She had value. No one could take that from her—least of all a machine.
A 2019 Sunburst Award Winner for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic
A Book Riot Best Book of 2018
Praise for Plum Rains
“In Plum Rains, the world that Romano-Lax engineers is a character in itself, impossibly complex and daunting in its believability.”
—The Paris Review
“Plum Rains is a blistering social commentary of what the not-so-distant future of the world's fastest-ageing society will look like—told with quiet contemplation and a lot of heart.”
—The Straits Times
“A masterpiece . . . This brilliant, character-driven novel examines individual reactions to threats to survival and autonomy . . . all too relevant to our present-day world.”
—Sunburst Award Committee
“In this profoundly inquisitive and compelling novel, Romano-Lax sets timeless human dilemmas involving love, racism, misogyny, violence, grief, and dissent against environmental decimation, the daunting ethical questions raised by burgeoning AI, and consideration of the very future of humanity.”
—Booklist, Starred Review
“Andromeda Romano-Lax’s near-future novel, Plum Rains, gracefully explores ethical questions around artificial intelligence with refreshing humanity. Romano-Lax’s latest novel is a gift. Through its beauty and devastation, its speculation and its certainty, it will force audiences to confront the truest places within themselves—the spaces where artifice will never suffice.”
—Foreword Reviews, Starred Review
“The secrets we keep and the prejudices we navigate rise to the surface of Andromeda Romano-Lax’s lovely, heartrending near-future novel . . . Dark realities (including human trafficking) loom, but it’s the vulnerable-but-tough and irreplaceable characters who stick with you.”
“[Romano-Lax's] spin on the genre focuses on an elderly woman and a male android, a dynamic that provides the novel with its most original and engaging material. The thoughtful depictions of old age, memory, and trauma are refreshing. This is a compelling, enjoyable addition to the genre. A well-written, entertaining novel that both enacts and subverts the tropes of android fiction.”
“This quietly thoughtful read sits at the crossroads of literary and speculative fiction and will attract readers of both genres, especially those interested in exploring the consequences of present-day policies and the boundaries of artificial intelligence and human/robotic relationships.”
“Romano-Lax proves herself a gifted writer, creating beautiful imagery . . . A story of human connection and finding joy after trauma.”
“The writing is so subtle, so effortless, that your heart doesn't break so much as quietly dissolve into tears.”
Praise for Andromeda Romano-Lax
“Impressive and richly atmospheric.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“With great care and skill, Romano-Lax teases out the human complexities, exploring the differing values, desires and fears of the various characters while creating [an] atmosphere of chilling menace and threat.”
–Sydney Morning Herald
“Both shocking and thought-provoking; and the intimate struggles of a woman weighing her value, utility, and satisfaction both within and outside the home certainly resonate today.”
—The Boston Globe
“Scorching . . . By detailing how the study of human behavior differs from understanding people, and how smart women can miss the obvious and make mistakes, Romano-Lax sheds a harsh yet deeply moving light on feminism and psychology, in theory and in practice.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review