I've wanted to review an Angry Robot title for some time, but so many of their new publications are part of a series that I hadn't been able to find anything I fancied until I saw this. The Mad Scientist's Daughter takes an idea that's familiar from stories like Asimov's Bicentennial Man and turns it into a very personal tale of one woman's life and love. It's an unusual book, but one I very much enjoyed.
Cat is just a child when we first meet her, living in a secluded old house with her mother and father. One dark and stormy night, her father brings home a stranger; someone so mysterious and otherworldly that Cat at first imagines he is a ghost. This is Finn, a robot who has come to help Cat's father with his work, but who will also tutor Cat. Finn is the first of his kind, a robot so lifelike that he seems to have a real personality and feelings, and as the years pass he is Cat's constant companion. Once she hits puberty, their relationship becomes much more complicated.
Cat isn't always a particularly nice person, and as a young woman she often uses Finn to satisfy her own need for affection and sex. If Finn has no feelings is it wrong? The book raises a lot of ethical questions, and the political backdrop of a wider struggle for robot rights throws them into sharp relief. We recognise that Cat feels geniune love for Finn, but how can she accept that she loves a machine whose "emotions" are just the result of a technician's programming? We wrestle with these questions just as Cat does, and while I felt sympathy as a reader for Finn, a small part of my brain was saying "don't be so silly, he's just a machine." This same problem causes Cat to make some unfortunate decisions in her life, and true realisation comes slowly.
The book has a small cast, and focuses mainly on Cat, Finn and Cat's beloved father, Daniel. The lack of subplots gives the book an intensity which I enjoyed, and the fact that the book followed Cat for nearly thirty years gives it a sweeping saga kind of feel too. Bizarrely, it reminded me of The Thorn Birds, with its theme of forbidden love that begins in childhood, though I doubt that's quite what the author had in mind!
The writing is beautiful; highly atmospheric and rich in melancholy. I was convinced it was bound to have a tragic ending as it all seemed so very sad, but you'll have to read it for yourself to find out if I was right! Though most would call this science fiction, it probably wouldn't appeal to the average sci-fi fan and I'd be more inclined to recommend it to lovers of intelligent romance or literary fiction.
I gather this isn't typical of Angry Robot's titles, so perhaps it wasn't the best introduction I could have had to their catalogue. I really loved it though, so I hope they bring us more of this kind of thoughtful, cross-genre and actually rather moving story. Four stars.