There is an epic sweep to this book not only because it takes place over much of a lifetime, but it deals with core issues:
- How do we find our identity and calling in a world where convention and societal pressure would have us choose a safe and deadening path?
- How do we risk ourselves to truly abandon our self-focus to love another, not just love our image of another but love the person, in the midst of a world filled with pain and loss
- Can we let go of our self-focus, our enlightened self-interest and ought we?
Cassandra Rose Clarke brilliantly explores these issues and more in The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Science fiction has always been a great medium to explore issues since we’re pulled out of our culture, and its related blinders, into another world with less pre-built conceptions. Ms. Clarke takes a future earth, which is so much like our own, with all our current foibles, some additional challenges and capabilities. The story centers around Caterina Novak and Finn. Cat is the daughter in the title and Finn, an android unique in his understanding and consciousness.
The Novak family (initiated by Daniel Novak, Cat’s father, who had a hand in Finn’s creation) takes him in. Not knowing what else to do with him, he’s made Cat’s tutor. To Cat, Finn knows all things, is unflinchingly loyal and gives her his complete attention all of the time their together. There isn’t anything he won’t do for her. He is, in short, apparently perfect and what we seek in men but find only in God. Cat, it almost goes without saying, falls in love with Finn. Any intimate relationship between a human and an android is fraught with obstacles. Ms. Clarke deals with these issues in a poignant and authentic manner even while they occur in an alien and made up world. This world contains just enough geekery to keep the SciFi fan happy, but it is not hard science fiction.
There are no pat answers or story lines here; whenever I think I have a character or the narrative direction down, it zags. Hearts ache, people let one another down and, as in much of life, things don’t go according to plan. Everyone is a bit marred, some more than others. The thread of genuine care, of loving one another, is woven throughout the story, even in its darkest moments. I can say little more on the story without leaning perilously close to the spoiler line, so I’ll simply say that this is your story played out on a different canvas with alternate choice points. You will see yourself in this world. You will look to the time you’ve caved into peer pressure, doing what was expected of you. You will remember the times you stood firm and told the world to go fly a kite. You will find the characters engaging, multi-dimensional and yet not quite like anyone you’ve met. I will say more below the spoiler warning, but I highly recommend the book both for sheer entertainment of a well-written story but also for the challenges it lies at our feet.
Much of the story is also about our identity: what is our place and purpose in the world. Who are we at our core. Both Finn and Cat take a long journey, often filled with pain, to find the answer to these questions. Of course, part of that answer is who they are together. Ms. Clarke obliquely deals with the question of Finn’s personhood and sentience. Mostly, it is simply a given that he is fully sentient.
I listened to much of the story on the Audible version (flipping between the Kindle and the Audible version with Whispersync for Voice). Kate Rudd narrates the story. I first heard Ms. Rudd perform John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. She is fast becoming one of my favorite narrators and performs this book admirably. One of the brilliant choice points was to play Finn with a totally flat, neutral voice. This may seem obvious for an android but I’ve heard them done with very artificial robotic voices. This is done with flat, even timing and tone but it never feels artificial. Certainly her performance drew me in and allowed me to get lost in the novel.
***Spoiler Alert. There are MAJOR reveals past this point***
Cat, it seems, falls for Finn, in part, due to his unconditional love and nearly limitless attention. It becomes clear over time, however, that she begins to treat Finn as we so easily treat God; as if he is there for our needs when we want him the way we want him. He is remade in the image of a caretaker, not a person with whom to have a close relationship. After all, it is all about us. Cat could genuinely care for others, but her compass ultimately pointed to herself. This is in the context of some pretty strong isolation in a fairly provincially minded community. She also has to contend with worried parents who think she is too involved too young. So, while we understand her stunted relationships, not only with Finn, but pretty much with everyone she encounters, she is nonetheless culpable for her limitations.
Cat has a roller coaster time of it, but ultimately settles into a life of art mixed with convention. She dates a guy partly because she believes he won’t want a long term commitment. Ultimately, they marry but essentially simply use each other until Richard becomes abusive. Cat literally lives in a glass house in a life she hates. She longs for Finn (they’ve even had a form of sex by this point) but stays within expected boundaries.
Lest we become unsympathetic to Cat, we must remember that the taboo against Finn and her together are unparalleled. Moreover, Finn ultimately is unable to show all that he feels, until the very end. Again, this is like us; we settle for this world and warped relationships when God calls to relationship with Him and a fuller relationship with one another. As with so many of us, it takes death and loss to finally break through the shell we have made for ourselves. Finn is finally able to fully feel, to have a full relationship with Cat (except she is married at the time). He instead leaves for the moon. It also takes hope to risk love. Cat’s son provides current joy and future hope for her. Finally, Cat realizes that she didn’t really treat Finn as a true person, despite protestations otherwise. She used Finn. She had a relationship with the Finn of her making. Finn confronts Cat with his own recognition of this and they reconcile. They find redemption, although not perfection, in true love.
There is so much here that resonates with our lives. We bind ourselves to worldly expectations and goals. We respond to all around us as if we are the center of the universe. It is good or bad in relation to how it is for us, directly or indirectly. Yet we are free and most truly ourselves when we let go of our desires and orient ourselves to others in ultimate orientation to our Beloved. It is indeed love that sets us free, but it is the freeing love of God that removes the scales off our eyes and the shackles of this world. It is that love which frees us to truly love and serve others.[Full disclosure: I am a Christian.]
This may not have been the intended conclusion from Ms. Clarke, but I could not help but see the parallel with our relationship with God and each other. We crave unconditional love and are always disappointed with the love we actually receive; even the best of us are merely human. We crave significance but often settle to match what is expected of us. We are, however, like Cat, a mixed bag. We are unfettered in some ways and enslaved in others. Like Cat, we are blind to our fetters until another can release them. Like Cat, we only enter into true relationship when we recognize that the reward isn’t what the person can do for us, but the person himself. God Himself is our great reward and treasure in Christ Jesus, not His ability to intervene in our lives to make them easier. He must enable us to move past ourselves and the limitations of having a relationship with an image we’ve conjured for ourselves. No, it is Him who loves us, not our construct of Him. It is both our joy and duty to enjoy Him, to revel in Him.
So while the story is delightful as a story of love and loss between people, it strikes me that there is another layer to it; a story of our being set free to truly love God by his extraordinary love and power.