It shouldn’t come as a surprise that stories about robots, and in particular stories about love between robots and humans, are actually just stories about humans. Most stories are—about humans, that is. The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is no exception. It’s right there in the title: this is about the daughter Cat, and not so much about the robot, Finn. He’s absent for much of the novel—though never gone. His presence throughout Cat’s life, from her childhood when he tutors her to her early days as an adult, affects the way she forms relationships with other people. More than that, by examining such a long stretch of Cat’s life, Cassandra Rose Clarke explores how someone’s relationship with a sentient robot can evolve.
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is what one might call “soft” post-apocalyptic fiction. In a soft apocalypse, civilization doesn’t end so much as weather a massive catastrophe. In this case, it’s the creatively named “Disasters.” By the time Cat is growing up, life is better—we’re building a base on the moon, and we have robots that are starting to camp in the uncanny valley and demand rights. Yet within this vision of the future, there are odd echoes of a twentieth-century past. Cat’s bohemian life as a near-penniless artist contrasts with Richard’s intense, fast-paced life of business deals and stock options. She "settles" for marrying him because it’s the easy thing to do, and so she slips into a tiresome life of being a trophy wife and eye-candy for Richard. Clarke makes a big deal out of this being, in part, a reaction against Cat’s mother’s attempts to push Cat into a STEM career under the belief it would make Cat a more independent woman. But the housewifey nature of Cat’s story arc seems so out of place in what’s supposed to be the future in a very retro way.
It’s the future, but gender dynamics and professions don’t seem to have changed that much (and, in fact, might have regressed a little from the present). I feel like, realistically, having the technology feasible to build a moonbase or robots of the sophistication portrayed here would lead to wider social changes than what Clarke shows us. Of course, that isn’t the story Clarke wants to tell—she’s writing about the powerful and conflicting nature of love—and I respect that. She is taking a gamble, with every possibility that it could go wrong and I could be complaining about it.
Indeed, I stumbled through the first half of the book with little interest in events or the characters experiencing them. Clarke’s detached narrative style did not appeal to me. There is so little exposition about what Finn is, how he came to be, until closer to the end of the book, that I struggled to understand what the point of the entire story was—and so I nearly missed it. Yet somewhere between climax and denouement, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter finally reaches a crescendo that makes me care. More than that—it cut me up. The ending of this book demolished me. And unlike many better books that have done this, with this one, I didn’t see it coming.
One could make the argument that this is a love story, but I won’t. Cat’s relationship with Finn is more complicated than love. Unlike a human lover, Finn does not age. Although his programming grows in complexity over the years, as he and Dr. Nowak make various improvements, in general he remains the same. Cat, meanwhile, ages considerably. She grows up from a solitary child into a creative but frustrated young woman. And thanks to the environment and experiences she has, her youth is not as cozy as she might have liked it to be.
Clarke highlights Cat’s difficulties through the changing nature of her relationship with Finn. It’s most noticeable, of course, when the issue of sex enters into the equation:
She thought about Finn’s touch, but she did not allow herself to think about the deviancy of it. Only damaged people slept with androids. People who couldn’t stand human touch. Cat wasn’t like that.
I love that line: “Only damaged people slept with androids.” It just sums up Cat’s entire self-image, from adolescence on through into adulthood. She is damaged. Her parents are emotionally distant, switched off, yet full of expectations for their daughter. Her mother badgers her into making something of herself, having a career, while her father simply retreats into his lab, allowing Finn to take care of the thorny issues of teaching. Cat’s social contact is limited during her childhood to the point of negligence.
The line above comes at a time when Cat is entertaining a marriage proposal. She doesn’t want to marry Richard. She doesn’t love Richard. But the proposal is difficult to refuse, because it has the tantalizing stamp of normality. If she gets married, to a human, and turns her back on Finn, then she gets to prove she is not damaged. Though Richard is—even if he wouldn’t admit it—essentially taking Cat on as a trophy wife, in many ways Richard himself is a trophy for Cat’s own self-esteem.
Cat realizes the first part—that marrying Richard is a desperate grab for normality—but doesn’t realize the second until it’s too late:
She used to think that he was using her in their marriage—as a decoration on his arm, as a test subject for his AI—but she understood now that she had used him, that he had loved her and she never once reciprocated despite claiming otherwise, over and over again.
And so Clarke emphasizes the flaws that brought Cat to this point. Nothing in this excuses Richard’s self-centred and insensitive behaviour. But Cat is not blameless when it comes to entering into the relationship. She was too busy deceiving herself, trying to push Finn aside, and failing.
It’s not until Cat has a child of her own and her father’s health fails that she begins to develop much personal momentum of her own. Caring for her father and for a child transforms Cat; it gives her responsibilities far beyond anything else she has ever had, whether it’s a commission for a tapestry or taking care of the stultifying suburban house she had shared with Richard. Cat starts to live again, even as her father slips away from her.
This is the point where the novel started to catch me. Cat’s awakening, if you will, the moments where she starts to grow up and actually become a person, moved me far more than I anticipated. And while Finn’s return might have been inevitable, I respect that Clarke doesn’t just through the two of them together into each other’s arms. There is a certain wariness, an uneasiness brought about by the way in which they never said goodbye and the circumstances of their reunion. We’re left with the implication that it is not happily ever after, but that it is happy for now, and that the potential for happiness always exists, even if there are moments when it isn’t realized.
This is not a story about a robot. It’s not even a love story about a robot and a human. It’s a story about a damaged little girl who happens to know a very special robot while she grows up. And his presence complicates her life, but not so much that she doesn’t move on, for a little while. When things fall apart for her, she seeks out the entity that has been a constant, the person who has never let her down. He just happens to be artificial.
I can’t commend The Mad Scientist’s Daughter for brilliant prose or incredible writing. Like The Assassin’s Curse and its sequel, this book suffers from underdeveloped characters. But Clarke knows how to tell a story. And while I was sceptical at the start, the book eventually won me over through persistence and pathos. This isn’t an amazing story. But it is thoughtful, meditative, and above all, beautiful. And that is certainly commendable.