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mad scientist's daughter

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Collapsing Sadness

When I was in junior high, I knew this girl who claimed to be a test tube baby. She claimed a lot of fantastic things, like that she had no sense of smell because of the scientific tinkering of her experimental origins, and some other odd physical anomalies. I pretty much knew this was bullshit, but this was back before I could spend 15 seconds typing into a screen on my cell browser “first test tube baby US” and get the name and birthdate of Elizabeth Jordan Carr, born on December 28, 1981. Ms Carr was the 15th test tube baby in the world – as the NYTimes article notes,” in vitro,” the more commonplace term now, means “in glass” – born a full 7 years after the girl I knew had been born. I remember questioning my friend gently about her sense of smell: do you have trouble tasting things? Is it all just bland like you have a cold? Oh no, I taste everything fine. Oh, I thought, bullshit. We were never close or anything – in truth, I didn’t like her much – but I let all this slide.

Even with my somewhat flimsy adolescent class sense, I knew how poor her family was. They – she, her mother, and a round-robin of her mother’s “boyfriends” – lived above a corner grocery, the kind that sells Campbell’s soup for double its price, cigarettes and 3.2 beer. Her family didn’t even have a phone, but used the pay phone on the corner. They weren’t the only ones, and there was this complicated set of protocols and negotiations when you called it – gather ’round children, because pay phones used to exist, and they used to accept incoming calls: the guy who would bang on the door to the stairs leading to their apartment, leaving the phone hanging, the guy who wouldn’t, the corner store owner with an angry, thick accent who would go through periods of 86ing her family (I think for non-payment of their credit, but also for more noise-centered complaints). Corner store owners used to extend credit, young’ens, in a notebook-under-the-register kind of way. They still may, if the great gossiping neighbor center who is Mohammed at the corner store on my block is any indication. I’ve certainly walked out of S-Mart with goods I didn’t have the money for, but just because I forgot my wallet like an idiot. I could be into him for hundreds if I were closer to the edge. There but for the grace of God, etc.

So I knew what she said was bullshit, but I got why she was running that line of bullshit. The science fictional aspects of her supposed conception added a shine of dramatic ethics to her impoverished upbringing. Again, children, this was long enough ago that the whole concept of “test tube babies” had this op-ed worthy hand-wringing about it. You could still run the false-Darwinian line about how in vitro fertilization was violating the spirit, if maybe not the letter, of survival of the fittest with a straight face – nevermind any business about God and His Will and whatnot – and you could run it without hitting millions of children who have been conceived this way since then. I myself know at least a half dozen. I’m not saying that the ethics of in vitro fertilization have been solved or anything. I got into a surprisingly fractious argument with my husband about a specific messed up situation created by IVF, and we concluded our argument with the understanding that even people who generally agree about the broad moral questions are going to get tripped up by issues of gender, personhood, and ownership. At a certain point, all that crystalline logical scaffold teeters and collapses into hard core interpersonal gut-reaction.

Catarina is five years old when her father returns one day with an android named Finn. Cat is five, so she doesn’t quite get what Finn’s extraordinary assistance might mean. There have been automata and AI in this scorched, rebuilding world, but Finn is unique, more and less human than anything that came before. But five years old does not mean but be. She decides Finn is a ghost, because that makes sense to five. My daughter just turned six on Christmas, and we recently had a long conversation about how the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy are obviously me, but Santa is real. As much as I’ve always believed in not running bullshit on my kids, I just didn’t know what to say there. I figure in a year or two the world will inevitably crush her understandings of Santa’s precise reality, and it’s not like I need to be the messenger there. Which is one of the many things that clove me about this story: the way I completely empathized with both parent and child, feeling the hard shocks of understanding when Cat’s mother snaps at Cat’s choices – I wasn’t built to be a housewife; no girl is – while bleeding for the casual judgement. Jesus, what we do not in the name of love, but because of love and our studied ignorances. Finn acts as tutor to Cat, and the world and its ethical understanding changes around them as they change. They move from a world in which the term test tube babies dissolves into the commonplace in vitro fertilization, but that doesn’t mean the hard core interpersonal gut-reaction is just semantics.

I kind of don’t want to get into the mechanics of the plot, because I’m not sure concrete action says anything about the long tides of lived lives. Cat grows; she goes to school; she marries. That’s just facts. But about halfway through, I sat up on the couch and said to my husband, this is so sad, I’m not sure I can take it. I spend the next half of the book near weeping, and if I’m going to be honest, weeping. We are such disastrous creatures, humans, and it’s not such a huge surprise that the consciousnesses we create will be disastrous too. Part of this is that on a very overt level, this is an unrequited love story; this is an emotional response to intrusive technology, and the cultural scaffold is less important than the teetering and its fall into the personal.

I was very careful in the last paragraph not to use the word romance in relation with Finn & Cat, which I think belies in me a certain discomfort with love and sex and the domestic in fiction. Certainly, the term romance applies in many ways, though more in its capital-R incarnation: the Romance. Romanticism attempted to inject strong emotion into the bloody warfare of Classicism, valued folk art as authentic craft, got its rocks off on rocks, trees, and landscape. That’s all in here: a brooding, personal recollection of the world after ecological disaster, with an eye towards the beauty of that devastation; the folk art of weaving that Cat takes up, confusing her scientist parents, and on some level, herself; the near-Gothic near-Freudian setting of the family home, with the father in the basement and the android in the aerie. The opening section, with Cat catching fireflies in a jar, was almost too much for me – such vividly worn shorthand for wonder – but I promise this works long term.

Anyway, at some point, Clarke tips her hat to Kazuo Ishiguro and Maureen F. McHugh, and I smiled at the tip. We’re at the edge of science fiction here that thrills and bleeds with the literary wasteland of cool sentences and felt emotion, that understands that it’s not about whatever jibber jabber about the great Frankenstein’s Oedipal monster, but his daughter, growing up in a world that has transmuted from test tubes to in glass, but in glass in another language. There was a comment thread recently about this odd edge of genre, about how at a certain point science fiction sails over the edge into some more literary metafiction, and the literary metafiction sails right back, and they stand silhouetted on the water. Ishiguro’s clones, McHugh’s chimera, Atwood’s genetic engineering, Whitehead’s zombies, Boudinot’s Age of Fucked Up Shit – these creatures and stories all fall into this strange edge of the science fictional or the literary, one or the other or both in a quantum uncertainty.

But The Mad Scientist’s Daughteris also a romance. It is about love. It is about love in the most collapsingly personal way there is. God, and it’s so, so sad.

I didn’t understand why this novel had been published by Angry Robot, because, so far, what I’ve read from that publisher has been much more pulp sensible. (I am not using the term pulp as a brush-off or indicator of poor quality. Pulp doesn’t give a shit where it’s shelved.) But in writing this review, I get it now. The literary and the science fictional have been doing a dance since New Wave, running the ethics of technology met up with our humanity and the inherent surrealism of such a project, into a martial art of which part of the bookstore to shelve such a thing. Add in romance – the stories of love and the childhood bedroom, of uneasy marriages and disappointed parents – and the dance becomes something…maybe not new, but old, the way we who have lived through gigantic technological upheavals – and that is all of us – navigate the old, messy questions of consciousness and emotion in new mediated ways. This book takes a cell phone and calls that payphone on the corner. Who answers will break your heart. Or, in any case, it broke mine.

I got my copy from Netgalley and Angry Robot, in exchange for a fair review. Thank heavens.