THE SUM OF US: TALES OF THE BONDED AND BOUND, ed. Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law
Laksa Media, 2017
The Sum of Us, released September 8th, 2017, is an anthology of 23 short stories around the theme of carers and caregiving, edited by Canadian editors Lucas K. Law and Susan Forest. As someone who has spent significant parts of their life caring for loved ones to one degree or another as well as being cared for, I wasn’t sure how this collection was going to hit me. This is an emotional deep dive, bringing to the surface complex experiences and feelings around the nature of caring for others.
The collection starts you off chilled with ‘The Dunschemin Retirement Home for Repentant Supervillains’, a tongue-in-cheek story by Ian Creasey about a nursing home for elderly supervillains who are supposed to have given up their evil ways. Inside lives Anarcho, who’s not quite done with supervillainy despite his diminished ability, and his henchman Stafford, on whom Anarcho relies for the enactment of his dastardly plans. It’s a funny little piece that nevertheless surfaces the importance of Stafford’s continued choice to remain with Anarcho.
A choice is crucial in Hayden Trenholm’s ‘The Burdens We Bear’. Syvian, an old monk of an ancient order, is the sole caretaker onboard a ship carrying thousands of cryogenically-frozen humans to a new planet. Syvian’s relationship with Michael, the antagonistic ship’s AI, is spiky, but as we realise the nature of the choice that Syvian must make to ensure the survival of his invaluable cargo, Michael too softens. Syvian makes his choice in the end, and though it’s self-sacrifice, it was a free one.
Maybe unsurprisingly, there are a number of stories in this anthology featuring a robot, AI, or otherwise constructed being whose primary function is to give care. Especially in the global north, professional care is a growing industry as populations skew older. The question is whether the human tendency to turn to constructs to take on this labour is altruistic (looking for the best way to do it) or motivated by reluctance to take on the work ourselves for whatever reason.
‘Mother Azalea’s Sad Home for Forgotten Adults’ by James Van Pelt features a nursing home in which ‘resident assistants’ (human-like robots) monitor patients’ quality of life via a complicated formula, euthanising them as soon as it falls below a certain value. This reads hella sinister, as would any story where the power to decide one’s own life or death is in hands other than our own, but I think the effect is amplified because it’s with non-human intelligence that the power lies. In Van Pelt’s story, Dave, a human doctor, shows Tad, a resident assistant, a new aspect to quality of life previously unconsidered in the robot’s formula. It depicts a future in which robots—symbolising purely logic-driven care—miss the nuances of humanity necessary to give good care.
A totally different story, Amanda Sun’s ‘The Gardener’ implicitly examines whether it can even be ethical to make the entire purpose of a being to care for things it has no stake in. This wonderfully sinister story pulls an old twist but a good one. A gardening android, like Tad, misses the significance of human behaviour, but for this robot the point is moot: it must choose on its own whether to continue its duties.
Sandra Kasturi’s ‘The Beautiful Gears of Dying’ moves away from ethics to blur the lines between human and construct and thereby between life and death. A little piece exposing a desire for the undying, unliving machinery under a robot’s synthetic skin over the very human, messy, painful process of gradual death.
Another important theme throughout the book is that of grief, whether for yourself or others, and what you do with it. For me, the most striking of these stories is ‘Good-bye is That Time Between Now and Forever’ by Matt Moore, in which a trans woman, Catalina, accompanies her elderly father from Barcelona to Boston on his final journey in a cataclysmically changed world. The tension that comes with our not seeing the full picture adds to the certainty of approaching horror; the horror in the end being not only what’s happened to North America but that of bereavement—and then, in the end, the horror is eased by the acceptance of it.
Another beautiful, though heartbreaking, story about loss is Karina Sumner-Smith’s ‘The Oracle and the Warlord’, in which a warlord comes to seek a prophecy of an oracle who, despite the love and care of her attendant, is almost at the end of her life. It’s not only about death but also about the grief for the stepped losses of long-term illness—loss of mobility, loss of energy, loss of the things by which a person defines themselves, is defined by other people, for which they are loved. It is also about how, in the wake of loss, the world rolls on despite everything.
On the flip side of grief, though, this collection also hums with joy—the joy of living and loving. In Liz Westbrook-Trenholm’s ‘Gone Flying’, a grizzled old woman spends her twilight years caring for her brood of baby clones, as mandated by whatever government remains after an apocalyptic cataclysm. It started out so intensely harrowing I had to put the book down and walk away for a few hours. But when I came back, I discovered a story so full of love, even woven inextricably with sorrow, and in the end, joy at the weary old persistence of life, that I’m still thinking about it days after finishing the whole book.
Stories like Claire Humphrey’s ‘Number One Draft Pick’ and Charlotte Ashley’s ‘Orang Tua Adventure Home Academy’ are full of light and life in the face of ill health and death. Something in these speaks to me so fundamentally—being ill or disabled and being a carer aren’t your be all and end all most of the time, they’re just a manner in which you navigate the world.
The last story in the collection is an ode to joy. In ‘Dreams As Fragile As Glass’ by Caroline M. Yoachim, Hikaru moves with her husband Tsutomu and her daughter Masumi from Japan to Hawai’i, and not long after the family discovers that Masumi is developing symptoms of a genetic disease that turns her gradually into colourful glass. But Masumi only wants to learn to surf.
And surf she does, both strong and fragile at the same time, beautiful as she shines in the sun. Her parents watch her from the sand, caught up in this moment they’ve enabled, when their daughter is alive and happy.
Alongside the stories I’ve mentioned are many more I haven’t, but that’s down to space constraints rather than deservedness. The Sum of Us is a whole world’s worth of windows on the experience of caregiving, from the familiar to the totally alien, encompassing the range of human (and non-human) emotion. As Susan Forest mentions in her afterword, there are none of us who don’t care in some way or another; humanity is defined by its cooperative nature, so in a way caring is the ultimate expression of human nature.
This anthology is the second book published as part of Laksa Media’s mission ‘Read for a Cause, Write for a Cause, Help a Cause’, and as such, a donation of CAN$1,000 goes to support mental health programmes upon publication, plus a further portion of the revenue from sales. The first collection was Strangers Among Us, which tackled mental health, and which I’m looking forward to going back and reading!