Carl V. Anderson (Carl V.) operates Stainless Steel Droppings, a blog dedicated to books, film, games and trail running. Be sure to check out his 2013 Science Fiction Experience reading challenge. Carl can also be found on a semi-regular basis posting reviews and interviews for SF Signal.
“Many years later Cat still remembered the damp twilight on her skin and the way the dewy grass prickled and snapped beneath her bare feet as she ran up to the edge of the forest that surrounded her home.”
How could she possibly forget that firefly-lit night, the night she sneaked up to the screened-in porch to find a stranger sitting there with her father? An inquisitive child, Cat quickly overcame her shyness and was soon introduced to Finn, a being she would later grow to understand was an android. But before that understanding came Finn would be settled in to the family primarily as an assistant to Cat’s father, Dr. Novak, an expert in the field of cybernetics, and secondarily as a tutor to young Cat. Yes, that was a special night, a night that would not fade from her memory, for that night which started out like any other ordinary night would be the night that changed Cat’s world forever.
There was no hesitation on my part when I first read of Cassandra Roses Clarke‘s upcoming novel, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, a few weeks ago. I promptly made an appointment with myself to be at my local bookstore on the day of its release. When they did not have it I just as promptly ordered it for the Kindle–there was to be no waiting. I read 49% of the novel that first night (at the risk of outing myself as an uber-nerd I must admit the percentage read feature is one of the things I love best about Kindle reading). I had not previously read anything by Ms. Clarke nor had I sought out any early reviews of this work. The novel’s tag line was enough for me. I am very fond of robot stories. Beyond the fascination I have with the dreamed up creations of folks like Isaac Asimov all the way across the spectrum to the very real and intriguing robot Curiosity that is at this very moment fulfilling its functions on the surface of Mars, I like robots because their examination in story often reflects back profound truths about humanity. This is what I expected Cassandra Rose Clarke to deliver and she did not disappoint.
There are many directions in which to take this type of novel. It is a love story, true, but even given the expectations we bring with us as to how a love story will unfold we don’t know until we start down the path what direction the author will lead. In the lovely collaboration between Robert Silverberg and Isaac Asimov, The Positronic Man (adapted from the Asimov short story, The Bicentennial Man), the focus is on the robot Andrew, his increasing sentience, and the way in which the world is forced to adapt to created beings becoming human. In The Mad Scientist’s Daughter Clarke starts out with a slightly wider view that encompasses young Cat, her parents, the android Finn and their rather insular world. The story becomes more insular as Cat’s decisions draw the reader’s focus to isolate on her. While Clarke includes elements that let the reader know that the greater world is dealing with the issues of whether or not sentient creations have rights, the focus never strays far from Cat. This is her story much more than it is Finn’s, but the ways in which their stories intersect allow the reader to become intimately involved with them both.
Cassandra Rose Clarke is an able writer. There are themes of love and loss woven throughout the tapestry of The Mad Scientist’s Daughter with such precision that at times the reader feels the possibility of being overwhelmed by both the joy and the pain but is never drawn inexorably over the precipice. There is a complexity of human emotions that stands out when juxtaposed against Finn, who is a robot, and Cat whose choices lead her to becoming ever more robotic herself. The reader experiences that shift during the middle portion of the novel. Clarke has engaged us in such a way that as Cat’s life seemingly grounds to a halt we want reach into the story and shake her out of her trance. Clarke very artfully reflects humanity on the printed page. The reader sees Cat come to her realizations slowly and sometimes painfully, the way it happens to us in real life.
I feel the need to interject something here. There is something magical about any good novel. The way in which the author can capture a moment, or a lifetime, with words in a way that retains and perpetuates a living energy is nothing short of magical. Clarke weaves her own magic here but does not do so with the shortcuts typical of the girl-meets-boy, girl-falls-in-love-with-boy, chaos-ensues, manner of the romances we are inundated with in much of our entertainment. Instead she turns the focus on Cat and refuses to turn away even when Cat’s actions frustrate and exasperate the reader. We aren’t exasperated with the story, our feelings come with the ease in which we identify with Cat and wish she could see now with the eyes of experience that we ourselves have only gained from the wondrous and tragic passing of years. The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is the kind of novel that asks that you make an emotional investment and Cassandra Rose Clarke makes that easy by creating characters that you root for right from the start.
Clarke has set her novel in an indeterminate future; one that is not unrecognizably different from our own and yet one in which certain technological advancements put the characters in a place that is certainly not the present time. And yet she creates this wonderful sense of imbalance by incorporating artifacts that feel very much as if they were pulled from the 1950’s. We see a prevalence of smoking, for example, and women who seem to come dangerously close to practicing 50’s era gender roles but without the disparity of identity present in many of the novels, particularly genre novels, written at that time. Most of the novel felt wonderfully anachronistic in that way and I cannot wait to ask her if this was a purposeful creation or something that is simply my own associations coming into play. It is an aspect that I hope would occur to every reader because of the way in which it overlays a sense of enchantment on to a sometimes raw narrative.
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is science fiction in the manner in which The Time Traveler’s Wife may be considered science fictional. I suspect there will be comparisons between the two because of their literary foundations and their focus on relationships and love, not to mention the similarity in the structure of each novel’s title. While the association is tenuous at best, I make it here to provide some context to the readers of this blog. The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is not typical of the majority of science fictional works that I review in that I believe it is the kind of novel that a passionate science fiction fan can pick up and enjoy while at the same time will appeal strongly to those who hold firm to the idea that they do not like science fiction.
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is a character-driven story that takes an intimate look at the complexity of human relationships. It does not shy away from the reality that we all make myriad choices that lead us to places where we look back and wish someone would have told us to ‘snap out of it’ before we wasted so much precious time. At the same time it paints a picture of hope because the reality is that it is never too late. When I finished The Mad Scientist’s Daughter I wanted to embrace my wife and daughter while simultaneously calling all of my family and friends to tell them how much I love them. All because of a young girl and a robot. You have got to love the power of the written word.