Cat is five years old when she begins to be home-schooled by a live-in tutor, Finn. Although initially wary, Cat soon becomes accustomed to his presence, and the arrangement lasts through her teenage years, a period in which she has little contact with anyone besides Finn and her parents. When she becomes old enough, her parents decide to send her to a public high school in hopes she'll make friends her own age. Though she does make a few friends, Cat never truly fits in at her school, and the person she feels most comfortable with is her former tutor. Slowly, and awkwardly, their relationship deepens into something more than friendship, and a few years later Cat, now in college and emotionally reeling from a death in the family, sleeps with him for the first time.
Based solely on this summary of the opening section of Cassandra Rose Clarke's The Mad Scientist's Daughter, many of us would be skeptical about Cat's relationship with Finn and might be annoyed that we as readers are expected to root for them to become lovers. But I withheld one fact: Finn is a robot, and during this part of the story robots are considered property with none of the rights that would be accorded to humans. We are troubled by a student/teacher romance because the power disparity throws doubt on consent, but in this relationship it is Cat who has the power and Finn's consent that is very questionable. Throughout this period of her life Cat is completely oblivious to such concerns, but over the course of the novel she eventually learns to see things from Finn's perspective.
The story is set in an America that suffered some never-explained climate disaster but has since managed to at least somewhat recover. Cat's parents were cyberneticists in an era when uninhabitable cities were rebuilt by mass produced robots, but a rising wave of Luddite religious fundamentalism sent them to the countryside around the time Cat was born. Cat grows up playing by herself in the forests and fields around her house while her "mad scientist" father works on projects in his basement and her mother languishes as a housewife. Finn arrives when Cat is five years old to work with her father and home-school Cat, but her parents won't say anything about where he came from.
At no point does this setting come into focus. It remains strictly a blurry background for what the novel is really about: Cat's feelings about Finn. It's worth emphasizing that it's Cat's feelings, more than even her relationship with Finn, that are the fundamental concern of the novel. One might expect that Cat's struggle to understand how she feels about Finn would be a lens through which to view the ethics and politics of robot consciousness, but this is a novel that wants to be a character study first, a romance second, and speculative fiction a distant third.
The story is told in the third person with the focus very tightly constrained by Cat's perspective. This allows us to get an extremely detailed portrait of Cat, but everything and everyone else in the book are difficult to see, generally because Cat herself isn't trying to look. It's fashionable in modern science fiction to avoid infodumps and instead allow the reader to learn about the world through the tiniest drips and drabs of inference, but that's not quite what's going on here. This isn't a novel like Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief where the reader must struggle to comprehend a world all the characters understand perfectly and thus do not explain. In The Mad Scientist's Daughter the reader interested in the setting struggles to learn about it mostly because Cat doesn't share that interest. All the things the reader doesn't know, she doesn't know either.
Clarke writes Cat with a nuanced and consistent voice, and the result is a very plausible portrait of a character who feels like the result of someone purposefully setting out to infuriate the sensibilities of the typical speculative fiction reader. Cat is self-absorbed and profoundly incurious. We never learn about what her father does in the basement because she doesn't ask, and on the rare occasions she goes there she doesn't even look. Her best friend Finn works there with her father, but no, she doesn't talk to him about it either. In college, while she and her friends watch live coverage of Chinese astronauts landing on Mars, she is shocked to learn that Finn and her father were involved:
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't think you'd be interested."
"Oh, come on, Finn! Freaking Mars!" She ran her fingers through her hair. She didn't want the conversation to end. "This drunk aeronautical engineering student told me some company's thinking about building a station on the moon." (p. 80)
Despite her protests, it's clear that Cat really isn't interested and right away is struggling to find something to say. She had to hear about the moon station from a drunk student because, as becomes obvious later, she drifts through life without paying any attention to the news. Later, when she marries a robotics company CEO, Richard, she has only the vaguest idea of what his company does. And not because he doesn't want to talk about it; he talks about it all the time: "Cat nodded along to all this business chatter but rarely listened; when she did listen, she didn't care" (p. 185). This makes it hard to know what to think when even the rare facts we do get don't add up. Richard's business plan is to create robots that are just slightly short of conscious (don't ask how such a thing could be defined with a bright line, this is all Cat knows about it so it's all we can be told). But then it turns out that not only is he personally against robot rights, so are his investors, and its a major embarrassment to him when people discover Cat is vaguely in favor. Surely it's in Richard's best interest to get laws passed that will enact strong rights for conscious robots, for without those laws, his limited products can't compete. Should we consider the third person narrative unreliable, reflecting Cat's misconceptions, or should we just concede that the author didn't think it through?
What is unusual about Cat is that she isn't ignorant about the world around her because she's busy pursuing some personal interest. As depicted, she doesn't really do anything at all. Growing up, her main pastime is wandering by herself in the woods. While being tutored she enjoys having literature and history read to her by Finn, but once in formal schools she doesn't like the books they make her read and doesn't seem to read any new books on her own. Her one hobby is weaving tapestries with a loom, so she hangs out with artists and gets occasional commissions for tapestries while holding down a job selling cigarettes in a stand beside the highway. She seems to embark on each of her three "wrong guy" relationships simply because it's the path of least resistance, tolerating but not enjoying her partners' presence. She only breaks up with them when they do something sufficiently outrageous to make the decision virtually automatic. When she marries Richard she's freed from having to work retail, and she uses that freedom to do . . . nothing. The story underlines again and again that she is a trophy wife, even going so far as to have her living in an entirely glass house, but it's hard to sympathize when she uses her considerable free time to feel unhappy and do nothing of consequence. She almost completely gives up her one hobby because of there's a lot of traffic between the glass house and her art studio. Theoretically, she works as a housewife, but thanks to robotics everything about her house is automated, leaving her no actual housework. Since Richard always spends long days at the office she doesn't spend all that much time being a wife either. "She exercised most mornings, doing Pilates off the screen in the living room . . . She reread the books of her childhood, all those stories Finn recited to her from memory . . . During the blur of days, Cat looked forward to her long evening walks" (pp. 184-5).
By itself, there's nothing wrong with a passive protagonist, but at least in speculative fiction this is typically used to focus the reader's attention outward at the larger world. A good recent example is China Mieville's Embassytown (2011), which is much more about both human and alien language than it is about its protagonist, or indeed any individual character. But as its title implies, The Mad Scientist's Daughter is entirely about Cat, so it stands or falls with the reader's ability to sympathize with her and remain interested in her slow awakening. Cat "acts" by gradually expanding her horizons to include Finn and his feelings, and the transition is well-described.
This may be sufficient for some readers to consider the novel satisfying, but others will end up frustrated by how many interesting ideas are introduced but never developed. Given the importance of Finn to the story, robot consciousness is probably chief among these. What does it mean for Finn to be conscious while many other robots apparently are not? How many robots besides Finn are conscious? What does it mean for Finn to feel emotions, and has he always been able to feel them? These are just a few of the questions that are not only not answered by the story, they are not even discussed.
Michael Ann Dobbs has argued that the novel portrays a world that has slipped away from modern liberal values in general and women's equality in particular, and there are certainly a few jarring moments that imply this, especially early in the novel, as when Cat's mother tells another woman: "And I told him, you married a cyberneticist. I didn't sign up to plan this kind of thing. Honestly, sometimes I think we just went in the wrong direction. Never thought housewifery would come back in style" (p. 24). But this is another aspect of the setting that never comes into focus, for Cat isn't concerned with women's issues. Cat lives what might be called an old-fashioned life, dabbling in art but otherwise unconcerned with a career or what the men in her life even do, finally becoming entirely focused on being a mother. Were Cat's limited interests, in such contrast to her mother's interest in science, imposed by the society around her, or were they (as Cat and, especially, her deeply disappointed mother, believe) the product of her own choices and desires? This is another question the story does not ask. Only a little more time is spent on the seemingly crucial question of robot rights, a decades-long civil rights battle fought and won completely in the background of the novel, coming occasionally to the foreground only because Cat donates her husband's money to an activist group as a way to annoy her husband and feel some slight connection to Finn.
The narrow focus even shortchanges questions relating to Cat's character. There's something strange about putting someone like Cat in a story that involves robots. Does her passive acceptance of her circumstances and her selfish lack of emotional connection mean she's more of a robot than Finn? Male characters refer to her as an "ice queen" and she's sometimes described in ways that wouldn't sound out of place in the novelization of an emotion chip episode of Star Trek: "Something inside of her—her calcified heart, her numbness—had cracked in two, and she was trembling and she thought, Here, this, this is what it feels like to feel something" (p. 111). The correspondence is clear enough to suspect the author intended it, but if so, what are we to make of it? It's not an inversion of roles, for Finn also rarely gets emotional. One might theorize that Cat is inhibited because of all the time she spent with Finn in her formative years, but the novel never makes it clear whether Finn himself is inhibited or is just introverted, and at any rate fully endorses their relationship as adults. Cat's childhood isolation might be the cause of a corresponding lack of socialization, but this possibility is only raised early on by Cat's worried parents and then never mentioned again. Cat resents being forced to go to school and, unlike some of Cat's other early attitudes, her reaction is never revised. At the end of the novel, Cat hopes her own child will have a similar childhood to her own.
The Mad Scientist's Daughter seems to be the result of an author taking an interesting premise that could have gone in many different directions and putting every effort toward maximizing the impact a romance kindling slowly through friendship and separation, letting what might have been other, orthogonal qualities fall by the wayside. Cat's life without Finn can't merely be not as good as it is with him; it has to be so vapid and empty that Cat herself becomes unlikable. It's not enough for her boyfriends and eventual husband to be not quite right for her; they have to become villainous and abusive, in Richard's case so suddenly that it feels out of character. And although the robot rights movement makes huge political strides throughout the novel, suggesting broad support, nearly everyone we actually encounter has to dislike robots so that Cat can stick up for Finn, or at least feel uncomfortable on his behalf. Perhaps the biggest sacrifice is a true understanding of Finn's character, as the all-consuming focus on Cat means that Finn remains mostly a mystery right up to the end of the novel. It's a novel of separation, so Cat and Finn are rarely together, and the novel never has time to demonstrate why they should be together, except that they are the default options for each other after other choices have proven unsatisfactory.
As a novel successful within its limited ambitions, The Mad Scientist's Daughter merits a limited recommendation. Readers who enjoy detailed character studies will find much to like here, assuming they aren't frustrated by Cat's wholly inward life. As a romance, most of the usual notes are hit, but the choice to show Cat growth to the point where she finally starts paying attention to Finn's own desires but end the story before the construction of a happy, functional relationship subtracts from the payoff. And considered as speculative fiction, the speculation is just too thin on the ground. It's good for a novel to be thought-provoking, but there comes a point where the reader is forced to do too much of the heavy lifting. I've often said that I'd rather read a novel that asks questions than one that answers them, but when most of the questions are coming from me instead of the story, the experience is more frustrating than rewarding.