The strapline on the cover of this intriguing book is A Tale of Love, Loss and Robots. And that is exactly what it is about.
Finn looks and acts human, though he has no desire to be. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection. A billion-dollar construct, his primary task now is to tutor Cat. As she grows into a beautiful young woman, Finn is her guardian, her constant companion… and more. But when the government grants right to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world, and her heart.
If you’re looking for a slam-dunk, action fuelled adventure full of clear-cut baddies and heavy-tech weaponry, then don’t pick up The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Because this offering is on the literary end of the genre, with nuanced, three-dimensional characterisation and coolly sophisticated prose that places this book in a heavily contemporary setting, due to the recent crash in civilisation – and also accounts for the sudden, huge reliance on robots, as their tireless assistance is needed to provide vital labour in rebuilding society. Not that this is the focus of the book.
This story concentrates on Cat and her relationship with the world, after having been tutored by a robot for all her formative years. And, by default, Finn’s relationship with Cat also is under close examination. Because the bond between them is heart and engine of the book, it has to be pitch-perfect. And it is. Don’t expect any black and white answers – this book is beautifully complex and Cat’s life unfolds in unexpected and sometimes disturbing directions.
Cat is a challenging protagonist. At times, I really disliked her selfishness and assumption that her needs are paramount – but then, she was brought up by an endlessly patient mechanoid, whose main task was to entertain, teach and befriend the little girl. Why wouldn’t she believe her wishes were of supreme importance? However, this book cleverly displays her patent shortcomings – and then has her face a series of life events that challenge her assumptions. And as she gradually learns that much of the blithe assurances she and her father mouthed back in those early days were far too cosy and simplistic, we get a ringside seat to her suffering and gradual maturity. By the end of the book, I was thoroughly rooting for her – and for Finn, whose initial purpose is far from clear cut.
Clarke’s clever examination of this complicated and often emotional subject assumes her readers are equally intelligent and willing to allow her to gradually unfold some of the major problems surrounding close relationships between humans and robots in a thoroughly grown-up manner. I loved it and will be recalling this classic book for a long time to come.