You know when you start to read a book and you know it's good but it's also not particularly your cup of tea? That you probably wouldn't have read it if you knew this is what it actually was? Even though the cover warned you that it was heartbreaking? Yeah.
The Mad Scientist's Daughter follows the life of Catarina Novak, the daughter of Daniel Novak, a preeminent engineer in robotics. Of course, we never learn all that much about it because we start following Cat at the age of 8, when she is much too young to understand what her father does. She's a young girl that enjoys running through the forest and catching fireflies.
One night, when she comes back with a jar full of fireflies, there is a young man standing on the porch with her father. Finn, Cat comes to understand, is an android but the only one of his kind. He becomes Cat's tutor and as she grows older, her friend and something more.
The book follows Cat from the ages of 8 to roughly mid-thirties, I would say. In that time, society changes around her, as robot rights get bandied around and Cat tries to find herself in a world that doesn't appreciate her feelings for Finn (who she doesn't even know if he can reciprocate) while also doesn't want someone who fails at the sciences. And so, much like the forests of her youth, Cat wanders through life a bit aimlessly.
This book is so sad. This is what I mean when I say I probably wouldn't have picked it up. It's not that tragic kind of sad, where there's some sort of heroic sacrifice (His Dark Materials) or a tragic twist (Never Let Me Go) or just the sense of the end of an era (Lord of the Rings). No, this is that kind of numbing sadness that pervades the entire novel, as you watch Cat wander through her life, not finding joy in anything but brief moments. Sometimes it felt like it physically pained me to keep reading. I don't demand my books be happy by any means but it felt like deliberately making myself miserable.
However, this is not to say the book isn't good. The book is rather wonderful. Clarke has managed to create a world that is at once recognizable and foreign. There are robots and vice stands and tales of the old ways before the disaster. However, there's also marital troubles, dating the wrong guy and raising children. It pulls off what I personally think is the most important part of science fiction: creating a world that feels real and solid without having to actually spend time to explain it. It's all there in the tiny details, fleshing out the world Cat and Finn inhabit.
Clarke is also a wonder at drawing up fully recognizable characters. The reader knows Cat by the first fifty pages, completely inside her head and watching as the excitable young girl becomes to melancholy adolescent to the unfulfilled young adult. She grows and changes and feels and never seems unconvincing. All of her characters have a bit of that in them. Finn is also very real, changing in small, nearly unnoticed ways as the book progresses. In a way, Finn is also growing, becoming more human, despite his best efforts.
I really did enjoy this book, even if it made me mildly depressed. It's very well written and creates a compelling story. Just don't read it as a pick me up.
The Mad Scientist's Daughter is out in February 2013 from Angry Robot.