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Friday, April 4, 2014

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Book Review: The Mad Scientist's Daughter

They say never judge a book by its cover, and I don't (well... sometimes), but I'll admit, when I glimpsed The Mad Scientist's Daughter in the book store one day I was instantly intrigued. I really had nothing to go on but the cover art and the title. I didn't even read the summary (I often don't, I like going into books with absolutely no expectations). I was expecting the story to feature a mad scientist of the Dr. Frankenstein variety and the trials of being the daughter of a villain. That would probably make a great story, actually... but no, The Mad Scientist's Daughter was much different, and perhaps more somber than I imagined.
One evening, Cat Novak’s father brings home a visitor, one that needs to be turned on, recites an endless collection of facts, and doesn’t need to eat or sleep. Not sure what to make of Finn, young Cat assumes him to be a ghost. Cat’s father, Daniel Novak, is a mysterious scientist, much gossiped about by the locals for his reclusive nature. They and Dr. Novak’s colleagues are intrigued by the android now living in his home. The world has never seen a creation like him. To Cat, he is simply her tutor and only friend. She gets older and their connection deepens as woman and robot explore their humanity together. 

I fell in love with Clarke’s language from the very first page. With colorful prose, Clarke paints an interesting futuristic world. A period known as the “Disasters” wiped out a portion of the population, and in the future, androids were created to fill the void. As humans have repopulated and artificial intelligence has progressed, it has left society to answer several questions about the nature of humanity and the rights of robots.

Clarke has a way with description that is both minimal and vivid (“They took the light rail to a Hong Kong department store, where all the glass windows sparkled in the sun and the clothes looked like ice cream sundaes”). I was entranced by the detail given to describing the weather and the flora and fauna in the Novaks’ backyard. We get the sense that the North American landscape is changed, but not necessarily desolate. Futuristic technology is applied with a light touch: certain advancements, like automated cars and homes, are only a natural progression of current developments and keep the story grounded in the plausible. The people of the future also look to recapture the past. Smoking is back in fashion, and cigarettes are sold by real live girls from vice stands along the highway. Cat learns about looms in her adolescence and makes her way as an adult making tapestries for corporate offices.

On one hand, I appreciated the subtlety with which technological advancements are included in the world. On the other, I felt there was a lack of detail and specificity in the world-building. There’s no sense of a timeline; we have no clue when or what the Disasters were or how far into the future the story takes place. There are also the larger ethical and political implications of the presence of androids, which are touched upon (e.g. the existence of an Automata Defense League) but never explored in any great detail.

The pacing is leisurely and atmospheric. I’m used to reading plot-heavy stories that race through character interactions and plot twists at breakneck speeds. It was a nice change to not feel like I was struggling to keep up. We have time to get inside of Cat's mind and feel the strangeness and wonder of her upbringing.

I’ll admit, human/robot love affairs are a hard sell for me (not that the subject matter comes up all that much, but you know, we all have our foibles). But by the end, even I was rooting for Finn and Cat. As a child Cat is precocious, but frustrated, growing up home-schooled with scientist parents who are not always attentive or emotionally available. Finn is her only companion, but he too is shrouded in mystery, and in her youth Cat does not know the right questions to ask. The first time she kisses him is simply experimentation, which soon becomes infatuation, though Cat doesn’t quite know her feelings for what they are. From high school onward she has a series of boyfriends, and even gets married, but never truly feels a connection to anyone but Finn. In this practical world, however, marrying a robot is not an option, and whenever Cat gets too close, Finn is quick to remind her that he is nothing more than a computer incapable of love.

What I liked about Cat is how her journey mirrors Finn’s. They are both creatures disconnected from the rest of the world. The tragedies Cat suffers also serve to distance her. Grief is a hard thing to write, but these moments felt painful and very familiar to me. As Cat goes through relationship after relationship, she begins to question her own ability to love.

The book spans roughly two decades, and while I liked the pacing for the majority of it, the latter half of the story felt a bit rushed. We finally learn about Finn’s origins, a great mystery throughout the story, but this moment comes and goes quickly and seems to have little bearing on Cat or Finn. At a point in the second half of the book, Finn leaves the Novaks, and I was surprised to learn that the time he is away spans eight years. Even though it’s understandable chronologically, I hardly felt the weight of his absence or its effect on Cat. He is gone when we, along with Cat and Finn, are finally uncovering the secrets that surround his creation.

While I was ultimately satisfied with where the story ends, I still had questions and wished for a little more detail about the world. Still, The Mad Scientist's Daughter is a beautifully written tale about a fantastical relationship. I consider rereading it simply to roll my mind around in Clarke's delectable prose.

Title: The Mad Scientist's Daughter

Author:  Cassandra Rose Clarke

Genre: Adult, Science Fiction

Recommendation: Yes

Best Reader Audience: Adults

Final Rating: Four out of five dozy foxes

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