Review

Unlikely bond between mum and android

Plum Rain is the fourth novel of Andromeda Romano-Lax , a former freelance journalist and travel writer.
Plum Rain is the fourth novel of Andromeda Romano-Lax , a former freelance journalist and travel writer.PHOTO: BRIAN LAX
Plum Rain is the fourth novel of Andromeda Romano-Lax , a former freelance journalist and travel writer.
Plum Rain is the fourth novel of Andromeda Romano-Lax , a former freelance journalist and travel writer.PHOTO: BRIAN LAX

FICTION

PLUM RAINS

By Andromeda Romano-Lax

Soho Press/Paperback/389 pages/ $19.94/Books Kinokuniya

4.5 stars


Plum Rains, set in Japan in the year 2029, 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.

A former freelance journalist and travel writer, Andromeda Romano-Lax's fourth novel is not only her first work set in the future, but also her first story based in Asia, having been inspired by her experience living in rural Taiwan four years ago.

In Plum Rains (tsuyu in Japanese), which refers to the East Asian rainy season that precedes the blistering summer heat, Romano-Lax spins a web of ethical and social conundrums.

Should artificial intelligence be accepted in our daily lives at the expense of making jobs redundant? How should a country that has long seen homogeneity as a virtue learn to co-exist with, if not embrace, the foreign workers whom it desperately needs?

Truth be told, most of these issues are already relevant to Japan, where immigration is a politically charged issue even as the government has quietly opened its doors to foreign workers and where demographic trends continue on a downward spiral year after year.

More than a quarter of its shrinking population - now at 126.7 million and potentially below 120 million by 2029 - is aged above 65, with some 68,000 aged above 100.

Latest statistics also show that the number of Japanese children has continued to fall to a new low for the 37th consecutive year.

In Plum Rains, Sayoko Itou is a centenarian who is a week from celebrating a major birthday milestone.

A wheelchair-user, she is heavily reliant on her Filipino caregiver Angelica Navarro, with whom she shares a professional, if not distant, relationship.

Sayoko has secrets that she has kept long buried out of shame so as to protect the dignity of her son Ryo, a high-flying career bureaucrat at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, who (surprise) is unmarried and childless.

He sends a sentient android prototype to care for her, with the intention of tapping media coverage of Sayoko's birthday party to show off the new technology to the world.

But the humanoid robot - who names himself Hiro - has his own moral compass and a startling ability to not only assess situations but also interact with people.

He quickly forges an unlikely bond with Sayoko, who has hitherto virtually no online presence having eschewed the Internet of Things and opted out of sharing her medical information on the cloud.

He also manages to unshackle Sayoko from her secrets - among other things, she is a half-Japanese who grew up in Taiwan - that she has long kept from Angelica, and she comes to project her belief that she has failed as a mother onto him.

Angelica, fearing that her job is in jeopardy, is also coping with a host of issues, including crippling debts, concerns over her brother dying from his toxic environment and an affair with Ryo's rival at the ministry.

Romano-Lax not only succeeds in blending the genres of historical fiction and science fiction in Plum Rains, but also sets out thoughtprovoking issues of the humanity behind such contemporary issues as foreign labour and technology.

If you like this, read: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Head of Zeus, 2017, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya). A multi-generational tale of struggle and resilience told through the eyes of an immigrant Korean family to Japan, Pachinko pays tribute to the long-hidden zainichi ethnic Korean community in Japan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2018, with the headline 'Unlikely bond between mum and android'. Print Edition | Subscribe