This science fiction novel, listed on i09’s list of best new science fiction of 2013, is about Caterina and her father, the “mad scientist” of the title. Her father, who spends most of Cat’s childhood slaving away in his laboratory, brings home Finn, a very human-like android, to be Cat’s tutor. Cat, a young girl at the time, thinks Finn must be a ghost, but soon comes to realize he is in fact a machine.
As Cat grows up, Finn becomes her closest friend. But can Finn feel anything for Cat beyond what he’s programmed to do, or is she deluding herself by avoiding the messiness of real relationships? Is Finn something more than a machine?
Bravo to Clarke for raising some interesting issues of android rights and the meaning of sentience. Also, for daring to write science fiction in a very emotional way. When we lament the lack of successful female science fiction writers, I think we are also lamenting the absence of emotion in science fiction (for example, Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues).
And yet… I wanted more science, more discussion of complex issues, and a whole lot less crying.
Love and romance and sadness are all great, even in science fiction. I love a good weeper of a novel (see my review of Zaremba). But this novel just seemed to go around and around inside Cat’s head without much happening or any real personal growth.
The problem was that I really hated Cat’s character. For one thing, her love for Finn was basically a love for someone who does whatever you want him to do. Yeah, it would be great if we all had big handsome male robots that came running at our every beck and call. Oh, and he’s programmed to provide emotional support and he never argues or disagrees. What’s not to love?
Cat uses Finn shamelessly, and what’s understandable in a child and teenager is a lot less likeable in an adult. Her friends and family also seem to be there only to support her when she’s upset. For example, she sees that her father is clearly dealing with some kind of serious illness and basically ignores it. But when she’s in trouble, she goes running home.
What’s worse, since her love for Finn is socially unacceptable, she shamelessly uses other men as well. She has no problem pretending to care for various guys so she appears to have boyfriends, even when she doesn’t even like them much. No human compares to Finn since –gasp- they all have flaws and problems. While Clarke does her best to mitigate this problem by making these guys really, really unlikeable, it doesn’t make Cat a better person in my eyes. She does a few things I find terribly immoral, but to describe them would give away major plot points.
I also disliked the tone and pacing of the novel. Cat sort of just drifts through life, and the book is written in a sort of “then I did this… and then I did that” kind of style where nothing much actually happens.
I really wanted more exploration of the interesting issues raised about when an android is sentient, what kind of civil rights they should have, and whether an android can be so “human” that a human-android relationship is possible.
Ultimately, the story and character flaws left this book lacking for me, and I was glad when it was over. I’m always willing to admit when I’m an outlier, and I seem to be with this book. It’s gotten mostly high marks from readers on Amazon. From the reviews, this book seemed to have moved people. For me, this book that explores what it means to feel emotion left me cold.