The Mad Scientist's Daughter

Cassandra Rose Clarke
The Mad Scientist's Daughter Cover

The Mad Scientist's Daughter


Intended Audience: YA
Sexual content: Explicit
Ace/Genderqueer characters: ? (A.I.)
Rating: R for language and sexuality
Writing style: 4/5
Likable characters: 2/5
Plot/Concepts: 1/5

Cat grew up in a little house surrounded by trees, where her parents worked on secret projects in their basement lab. One day, her father brings home an android named Finn, and assigns him to be her tutor. What begins as an innocent friendship soon decays into selfish desire as Cat matures, and this desire throws her and Finn's lives into ruin.

If I wanted to, I could have given the synopsis a more romantic angle. Something about how Cat and Finn are tragically kept apart by misunderstanding and the precarious struggle for robot rights. But that would feel dishonest on my part, because I have to squint really hard to see how this book is romantic at all. In fact, if I am to be completely honest, I felt physically sickened by about the halfway mark.

This novel started out so promising that I almost decided to buy it. The way Clarke describes the world from Cat's point of view as a solemn nature-loving child was the high point of the book for me. From the first page I was entranced by her use of all five senses to describe people, places, and the atmosphere of how they interact. It brought me back to my own childhood so profoundly that I nearly cried, and I saw myself in Cat, a past self that I wanted to remember and re-integrate. Those first few pages were the most powerful part of the entire book, and it was all downhill from there. The descriptions became slightly repetitive and overdramatic, so that instead of enjoying the atmosphere I began to feel weighed down by it.

The world-building started out promising enough. I expected there to be an expansion upon the various themes which were mentioned: the environmental disasters which made a desert out of the Midwest; the age when robots outnumbered humans, deployed to rebuild the world's infrastructure; the fervently anti-robot religious fundamentalists and their fight against those who want to give all sentient robots full human rights; the return to homemaking and "vice girl stands" as fashionable jobs for women (I really wanted this last one to be explained). But all of these were mere footnotes in the story of Cat's all-consuming desire for robot sex. Most of the book is spent in Cat's head, which is a very depressing place. She is utterly listless and disinterested in anything besides Finn (specifically, having sex with Finn). Granted, she takes some minor interest in weaving on vintage looms and selling her art as novelty to corporations. She cares about her ailing father. She comes to love her young son perhaps more than she's ever truly loved anyone else. But again, these feel like stop-gap measures, things meant to keep her alive in a half-conscious state until she can see Finn again and feel truly awake and aware.

Spending so many pages so fully immersed in Cat's distorted and depressing thinking began to make me feel mentally ill myself. Her love for Finn starts out as a fascination, innocently selfish in the sense of a child wanting attention because her parents don't fully support her. But once her sexual feelings arise, that selfishness takes on a new weight and becomes the central component of their relationship. Finn is not a sexual or romantic being in the beginning. He is gentle, kind, contemplative, and he cooperates with whatever Cat wants because he can hardly do otherwise. He wants her to be happy. He is, in every sense, treated as a mere object for her desires. Because of this, Cat never learns how to navigate a healthy relationship with anyone, as evidenced by her failed marriage to suave corporate man Richard.

I found myself frustrated on behalf of all the people she uses to prop herself up, and I wished someone would drag her to find help from a qualified therapist or doctor so she could stop tormenting herself and everyone around her. She is literally dizzied by everything and has difficulty coping with any sort of emotion other than lust, so it was obvious to me that she needed help, but everyone around her either enabled her or let her behavior fester until it drove them to abuse or total abandonment.

At one point, Finn removes himself from the entire situation and sells himself to a company who needs robots to build a colony on the moon. Yes! I thought. This is it! He's finally going to stand up for himself and find his own personhood independent of her. But it turns out he only did this because he was angry at her. It turns out (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!) that he was in fact programmed to have emotions (and, apparently, sexual desire) from the beginning, but this was repressed by a bit of code which Cat's father removed without Finn's consent. Finn's anger at being altered, and at used by Cat, is completely valid, but it comes from a different place than I was hoping. I was hoping that his speech to Cat at the end about wanting to be accepted as something other than human, not changed into something he wasn't, meant that Cat would finally have to face up to the fact that she doesn't really love him in an equal way—only as a toy . She'd have to accept that Finn does not fully reciprocate her feelings. Instead, Cat uses a convenient bit of programming to make Finn capable of orgasm, coaxes him to let her trigger it (which felt ridiculous and illogical considering how he didn't trust her at that point), and suddenly all of Finn's hurt and betrayal is washed away and everything is magically alright. It's as if she never mistreated him. She doesn't have to do any work to repair the damage she's done. All her pining and using of other people for the past several years was apparently penance enough for her to not learn any real lessons from this.

I have to mention that there is some feeble attempt at directing Cat toward a more unselfish love. She becomes more interested in Finn's entire story, going to find the place where he was built. She finds his inner workings beautiful. She knows that he's a machine. But it's so obvious that at the end, she still isn't interested in understanding his mind and who he really is. Instead of asking him to elaborate on his new sense of self, instead of listening to him, she forces her idea of what a whole person should be onto him, and the worst part is that it works. I was attached to Finn as a character. I was invested in seeing him find his own value as a person beyond what others wanted him for, and I held out hope (perhaps foolishly) that this would include some small validation of asexuality, an assertion that Finn was enough of a person even when incapable of sexual attraction. It still should have been his choice whether or not to remove that repressive programming. The story came so close to all these points, but fell short, which is part of why it was so frustrating.

I think it's safe to say I will never, ever want to reread this book. There was so much wasted potential here, so many possibilities for a truly unique story, passed over in favor of the same tired old sentiment that good sex is the pinnacle of humanity, and that this "humanity" is superior to all other forms of life. I find this narrative damaging and invalidating toward those who are asexual or different in the way they relate to others emotionally, and I so wish that Clarke and other science fiction writers like her could understand that point of view. Even beyond the needs of minority communities, it would produce more diverse reading for the rest of the world as well.