It is always wonderful to read emerging talent -- especially when it is as good as Cassandra Rose Clarke's novel The Mad Scientist's Daughter. I don't read as much Science Fiction as I once did, but this novel, recommended by a friend, seemed too good to pass up. And I am really delighted to have had the chance to enjoy it.
The novel's plot is simple enough enough -- a future time in the United States that suggest a country still struggling to cope with the aftermath of an event known as The Disasters -- which created a dust bowl-style destruction of large swaths of the country. But the cities have been rebuilt with the help of service robots who now do most of the menial labor. The protagonist Caterina Novack is born to scientist parents who have chosen to live in the backwater rural areas rather than the sleek modern cities. Daniel Novack, Cat's father, is a specialist in AI development and he works in a lab sequestered in the basement of the house. He has also brought a new unique android named "Finn" to work as his assistant, and to be a tutor to the young home-schooled Cat, who is allowed to roam the woods behind the house like a wild child of nature.
The novel offers an interesting polarity: Finn is adept at providing Cat "emotional" support whenever she demands it and acts as her personal protector. As she grows up, Cat relies and takes for granted her right to this constant attention. It has the effect of creating a dissonance in her -- Cat loves the android because it answers her every spoken need without asking anything in return, and yet she fails to connect with other human beings because she has no experience in actually loving someone without simultaneously using them. The android Finn appears more human, more compassionate, more "in tune" with another human being's needs and wants, while the young girl and later the young woman seems cold, distant, and emotionally stunted among her human peers.
It would seem that should make it hard to like Cat -- and yet we do, very much so. Despite her immaturity towards other human beings, she develops a love for Finn that is as unique and touching as it is problematic. Her love of nature, the forest behind her parent's house and her mother's garden is translated into her beautiful fiber art. She is a weaver, a gardener, a young woman stranded by a strange upbringing teetering between the natural world and an exotic android -- who is capable it appears of a slowly evolving sentience.
There are some parallels here to other traditional tales on whose old bones this futuristic story comfortably rests. I kept thinking of the tales of the golem (and most notable, Helen Wacker's recent The Golem and the Jinni) where the golem is filled with purpose by its maker, and exists solely to hear the unspoken desires of its master and act. It appears like "love" or loyalty, but it can have no other purpose for existence except to serve. And then there is the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who with the help of Aphrodite brought his sculpture of a perfect woman to life. And for me especially, I found the novel enriched by all the weaving metaphors (which I associate with so many folktales) -- the threads on the loom woven into an expression of love which Cat can't articulate, combined with the strings of Finn's schematic code, the delicate wiring of Finn's perfect body, and the silver "threads" in his eyes when he seems most human to her. (It is almost impossible not to use "him" rather than "it").
Clarke's prose is terrific -- spare, yet poetically precise and beautiful. Nature speaks for the emotional states of her characters -- the "choleric" skies, the thunderous rainstorms, the arid dust bowls, the sterile atmosphere of the moon which smells of explosive cordite, the ice that freezes in the house when Finn leaves open the windows because he "likes" the storming sound of the winds. The characters are finely and intelligently drawn (and with compassion for even the less likeable characters) and the subplots of android robots protesting for their "rights" echoes the hunger for connection in a world that has learned to use people rather to serve them. The Mad Scientist's Daughter has just been nominated for the 2013 Phillip K. Dick Award -- which would be an awesome win for this terrific new author.
Art: Chiara Bautista Top image: "Round here, he is always on my mind..." Second image untitled -- but it reminded me so of this novel as Cat is a chain smoker through most of the novel. Bautista work is extraordinary and I heartily recommend stopping by her facebook page and falling in love with her work.