Cat has a tutor somewhat unlike the usual: Finn is a robot, with advanced programming and construction that place him in the liminal space between human and machine. While he may have some of the most complicated and ornate programming in the world, with the ability to become more than simple machine, he is also, at heart, an android, even as Cat develops a friendship that blooms into something more complex over time. That series of events sets Cat on a collision course with exploding social issues in her futuristic world in this quietly thrilling, intense, darkly emotional novel. You won’t be the same after you read The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, trust me.
(Please note—this review discusses critical plot content, and you may want to read it until after you’ve read the book if you like to avoid spoilers.)
The story of The Mad Scientist’s Daughter starts with Cat’s rural life with her father and the tutor he hires to handle her education. We watch her relationship with her tutor evolve over time as she realises he’s not just an odd fellow: he’s actually a robot, but one capable of immense depths. When Cat leaves for college, her relationship with both her father and Finn changes as she pushes forward into adulthood and they appear frozen in their old life, but what she doesn’t know is that sea changes are working below the surface.
In part, this is a novel about coming into adulthood, and not just growing out of teenhood in your college years, but the shifts that happen into your 20s as you attempt to forge a career and an existence independent of your family and your old life. It’s also a story of relationships and domestic abuse and the corners people can feel backed into as a result of social pressures, uncertainty about their lives, lack of communication, and pressure from people who occupy positions of social and political power. In that sense, it’s a novel that speaks to a range of contemporary issues.
It’s also, of course, deeply tied to the science fiction tradition with the narrative of a hyper-sophisticated robot who ultimately chooses to join a moon mission to avoid the things troubling him on Earth. And as Cat struggles with her emotional attachment to Finn, she becomes consumed by his past: who made him, why, and how. What she learns surprises herself, and causes her to question some of the things she’s been told to believe by her husband, who stands to profit handsomely from the advanced robotics industry.
Against that backdrop, the United States is struggling with the issue of robot independence and rights, and this becomes a critical part of Cat’s relationship with Finn. Cat sinks deeper and deeper into depression and a spiral of misery as she becomes abstracted from the world of her husband, his colleagues, and the people she’s supposed to perform for, but she’s also cut off from Finn, who has transformed from tutor to friend to lover. Ultimately, Cat is forced to make some difficult choices about her own autonomy, even if those choices will leave her isolated from the rest of society.
This is not flashy science fiction that aims to distract: it’s very immediate and human, and it’s focused on the lives of the people depicted. It’s also very provocative when it comes to the exploration of artificial intelligences, androids, and relationships between humans and machines. As a robot, Finn technically shouldn’t be able to feel anything, but clearly that’s not the case in this narrative, where he experiences the full complexity of emotion that humans do, for better and for worse. Often for worse in a world where robots are isolated and deprived of their rights by legislation treating them as property instead of independent individuals with their own autonomy.
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter brought up some particularly complex ethics when it came to the romantic and sexual relationship between Cat and Finn, challenging some boundaries when it comes to depicting those kinds of relationships. While robot-human relationships have always been a part of science fiction, those straying into the realm of romance and sexuality have tended to be limited to erotica, pornography, and romance—genre fiction within the genre, in other words. The Madman’s Daughter takes such a narrative into mainstream science fiction, demanding that readers think about something that might make them feel uncomfortable or unsure rather than just being entertained by a fantastic story.
Finn is more than machine but definitely not a man, and the emotions he and Cat feel for each other are very real. The push and pull of emotions between them is fascinating to watch unfold, as is the eventual dramatic resolution of their relationship and their lives. I love that Clarke forces Cat to understand her role in Finn’s exploitation and her abuse of Finn’s emotions, and that Cat is also forced to wait for resolution and forgiveness, rather than getting what she wants when she wants it. This is no novel of easy fulfillment and satisfaction, but rather one that challenges expectations and demands that readers hold their breath along with the characters.
Rich, complex, and delightfully-developed, The Madman’s Daughter opens up new worlds of possibility and does so with elegance and grace. Cat’s world in the context of this novel is one filled with complexities and ethical quandries, and Clarke doesn’t shy away from any of them.