The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke (Angry Robot Books (kind thanks for providing a review copy), Jan. 2013)-When Cat Novak’s father introduces her to their new houseguest, Finn, she at first thinks he’s a ghost that her father has brought home for study. He’s much too pale, and his eyes much too dark, his limbs long. Finn’s not a ghost, though, he’s an automaton, one of a kind, even among his fellow androids. When her father announces that Finn will be her tutor, Cat is dubious. However, as she begins to spend more time with Finn, she starts to realize how much she’s come to like his company. He knows all of the Latin names of their garden flowers and the insects that hover over them, and is a wonderful alternative to sitting in a stuffy classroom. Unfortunately, Finn’s tutoring isn’t meant to last, and her parents decide to send her to high school. They think she needs to make friends, but Cat is anything but thrilled.
Soon she’s attending school, but she most definitely doesn’t fit in, and when a popular boy approaches her and not only insults her father but calls Finn an “abomination”, Cat loses it. In fact, she beats the crap out of him (which I admit was somewhat satisfying-shame on me.) Her parents are horrified but this leads to admiration from a certain set of students, and even reluctant friendship, and a series of boyfriends. However, as she moves through her teenage years, all she can think of is Finn, and the one searingly intimate moment they shared.
Automatons are nothing new in Cat’s world, but the ones she sees in public are clunky, movements jerky and stiff, not at all like Finn. As Cat gets older, the burdens of a “normal” life, including marriage, become almost too much for her to bear. All she can think about is Finn, and as she cultivates an ice queen exterior, she screams on the inside, and her loneliness is palpable on every page. The only thing that helps numb the pain is her art, the beautiful things she creates with fiber and a loom a reflection of her sadness.
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is set against a sweltering future Texas, years after the ruination of much of the landscape by war, disease, and ecological disaster. Automatons are widely used but they certainly don’t have rights. The Automaton Defense Fund is devoted to securing rights for robots that have achieved sentience, but until that happens, what is between Cat and Finn is forbidden. Eventually, right are granted to robots, and Finn makes a decision that will tragically alter Cat’s world, possibly forever.
I didn’t quite know what to expect from this book, but I couldn’t have guessed at just how stunning it would be. Cat has many of the traits that you would associate with a child of privilege. Her father is a well-known scientist and there’s no shortage of money to be had. She’s a bit selfish, and drifts through a life that those less fortunate would love to have, but inside her glass house, her heart is frozen. As she lives a life of money and privilege, Finn stays with her father as his assistant, working on robotics projects for the government. In order to understand Finn, she memorizes every line of his schematics, but the mystery of his “birth” has never revealed to Cat by her father, and it becomes her obsession to find out where he came from. Think you can’t get invested in a romance between a human and a robot? Think again. Cat’s longing and desire for Finn is a force of nature, and the tragedy, and joy, of Cat and Finn’s romance will stay with you long after reading the last page. Yes, this is SF in that it involves robotics and future science, but it is undeniably and overwhelmingly Cat and Finn’s story, and about the nature of love and what makes us human. I loved this book.