Genre: Adult Science Fiction
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release Date: January 29 2013
Source: ARC from publisher
In a word: Strange, melancholy, heartbreaking, and nostalgic.
“They went into his room and she climbed backwards onto his bed, the bed he never slept in because he did not need to sleep, and pulled him on top of her. She took off his shirt, kissed his pale, hairless chest. He had no heartbeat but she could hear something spinning inside of him. She was entranced by it. Like white noise, like the recorded sound of stars.”
The story—girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back—may sound familiar, but Clarke’s execution of it is anything but. Once again I have been surprised by a book. This seems to be happening a lot lately, for which I am very grateful. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a reading rut and every book I read feels just like the one before. But The Mad Scientist’s Daughter reminded me of a couple of books I haven’t read in years, books I loved dearly that still haunt me. It has the strange feel of Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden, a terribly sad story that was ultimately so rewarding. It also sparked some of the same emotions I feel when reading anything by China Miéville. This beautifully written and sprawling tale takes place over many years and follows the relationship between Cat, a young girl trying to figure out her place in the world, and Finn, the android that comes to tutor Cat and assist her father.
Cat’s father, the “mad scientist” of the title, brings Finn home one day when Cat is very young. Finn is an adult android who is the only one of his kind. He looks and sounds human, but is unable to feel emotions. (Think Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Cat’s childhood is mostly happy and carefree, as she spends her days studying with Finn and roaming the forests near her home. As time passes and Cat grows into a young woman, she realizes that she is falling in love with Finn—but that he can never love her back. When Finn decides to sell himself to the government and go to the moon to work on the Lunar Station, Cat is forced to evaluate her true feelings for Finn.
The setting of The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is a future America that has been devastated by an unexplained disaster, an event that has left many families struggling to survive. Cat’s family is luckier than most since her father is a well-known engineer and works with robotics; nonetheless, an air of desolation and sadness lingers over everything. Although this story is science fiction, it has such an old-fashioned feel to it, and the “nostalgic” label I used above describes the vibe perfectly. Details like robots and comm slates and computer monitors built into the walls of houses compete with cigarettes and worn clothing and dust, elements you don’t imagine when you think of a futuristic setting. This is one of the brilliant things Clarke does in her book, skewing our notion of what a science fiction story should be. The shiny toys of the future live side by side with human misery and despair, and the science fiction elements take a back seat to the more important human issues that Clarke is writing about.
As a main character, Cat was refreshingly different. She seems to go through life with little ambition, and I felt the choices she made were mostly out of boredom. She works as a “Vice Girl” selling hand-rolled cigarettes, and feeds her artistic leanings by creating tapestries on her loom. (One of my favorite parts of this story involves a tapestry Cat spends years making for Finn.) After Finn leaves, she meets a man named Richard and accepts his proposal of marriage because she can’t really think of a reason not to. Cat is not happy being married and is still pining for Finn, and it isn’t until Richard turns abusive that she finds the courage to leave him. As for Finn, you may think it would be difficult to root for an android with no emotions, but Finn was a big surprise for me. He starts out very robotic, but as the story progresses you can see that he is much more than just a tangle of wires and circuits. The blossoming relationship between Finn and Cat is tender and unexpected, and I loved some of the surprising moments they share, moments I don’t want to spoil for you.
Throughout the book the author explores the idea of sentience and what constitutes a human being, using Finn as the example. Cat has always believed Finn to be sentient, and she defends his rights to anyone who tries to call him “it.” But for me, the main theme of the story is isolation and how it can harm us. Cat spends her life trying to connect to other people and usually fails, but ironically she feels happiest when she is with Finn. The author captures the idea of lonely people circling around each other, coming together briefly and then separating again. I think it’s part of what makes this book so melancholy, but it also makes the times the characters do connect extra sweet.
This book is pretty special, and for readers who can appreciate unusual stories, this is one you shouldn’t miss.
Many thanks to Angry Robot for supplying a review copy. Quote is taken from an uncorrected proof and may be different from the finished copy.