In The Mad Scientist's Daughter, women's equality doesn't make it into the future

The Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter has her own TV Tropes page and now she has her own novel. Cassandra Rose Clarke, author of the YA adventure fantasy The Assassin's Curse has written a book where familiar science fiction stories are viewed through one woman's life. The Mad Scientist's Daughter is not for everyone — I suspect some fans might actually hate it. But it raises such good questions about the future, and the nature of science fiction storytelling itself, that it cannot be ignored.

Caterina Novak is a child when she first meets Finn, the world's most complex and lifelike android. As she grows up, she falls in love with Finn. But her desperate desire to feel normal leads her to make some pretty awful – if spectacularly human – relationship decisions. The book follow Cat through several decades of her life as she grows up, marries, divorces and pines for Finn. Cat isn't the kind of heroine who forces the world to bend to her will; she does not surmount the insurmountable, and even her attempts at grand gestures feel like something a normal person could do. Which is, I think, the point: here is a science fiction story where the main character is not a scientist or robot, but just a person.

There's a moment in many science fiction books when a character says or does something that is supposed to elicit a feeling of familiarity, of how "the more things change the more they stay the same." Whether it's a moment on a far-flung planet when the hero's stay at home wife just wants to talk about shopping (A.E. van Vogt) or a man worrying about his children becoming teenagers in a world where space and time have been pretty much vanquished (Peter F. Hamilton) or even just two characters falling into love (pretty much everybody), there's an idea that some things are universal to human nature and not artifacts of a particular western democratic society. The Mad Scientist's Daughter seems not to have embraced this moment, but to have ravaged it.

It's hundreds of years in the future and extreme weather has turned the midwest into a vast desert of sand. Robots are needed because the human population has dropped severely. And yet, the book has the feel of taking place in a post-World-War-II America. Cat's mother tells her, "You're going to wind up a housewife or secretary…. Women can do anything they want now." Not just the human relationships but the technology – the robots, moon base, and holograms – seem like something out of a 1950s science fiction book. The forbidden love of the book can easily be read as allegory where the robot stands in for an earlier era's racial or religious minority. Cat's sojourn in the suburbs, her nearly-discarded career as a fabric artist, and her socially unacceptable love also feel like something from the past.

But the focus of the story — Cat's life, marriage and career as a fabric artist — are not what you'd find in 1950's science fiction at all. Almost any of the characters around her –- an engineer trying to create a smart house, the scientist who creates life and is horrified by it, the man who grants a robot feelings, the robot who desires but doesn't know how to love –- are the usual cast of characters in a Golden Age story. Which may be why we've heard those stories before. But it's Cat, whose struggles are mundane and relatable, who takes center stage, throwing those stories out the window.

Cat's not particularly scientifically-minded so discussion of the physical hows of Finn's existence are limited and general. What makes him seem alive might as well be magic. Which again, feels somehow old-fashioned (positronic brains, anyone?), but also an accurate description of how most of us interact with technology. We live in the future now. We have instantaneous communication and the vastness of human knowledge at our finger tips and we use them to argue with trolls and look at cat pictures. The revolution in pocket computers was not driven by our need to solve astrogation problems or diagnose alien diseases, but to carry our entire music collections and amuse toddlers while waiting in line. The future may be brought to us by engineers and visionaries, but it will be lived by people who fear small town gossip and who take life paths of least resistance.

For all that the book seems deep in conversation with many earlier science fiction books, it also seems to be trying to get to something in a certain brand of feminist retellings. Cat is a weaver and tapestry maker, an art form that has been disregarded as women's work. Artists and museums have recently begun to re-position weaving and tapestry as an early form of pixilated representation, noting the link between Jaquard looms' punch cards and early computer programming. Cat may be surrounded by cyberneticists, but she has taken up the simplified and distaff form of mechanical programming. There is also something of Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique in Cat's unfulfilling life as a housewife. The suggestion is that feminist thought and advances may be fleeting.

There is a host of books, particularly fantasy, where female characters grasp at a certain type of modern feminism from decidedly non-modern settings. What most of us don't want to consider is that societal pressures, the liberal use of force and threats from within families and institutions, could turn feminism into just a phase that dies out. We'd like to believe that our current system of liberal values is so obvious and natural that once introduced, it would come out on top. The Mad Scientist's Daughter presents the possibility that women's equality might not even survive a few hundred years.

In The Mad Scientist's Daughter, women's equality doesn't make it into the future

Clarke's writing is filled with staccato sentences and short bursts of description. The whole book is about emotion, but the writing style keeps the story moving briskly instead of feeling bogged down. The language focuses on actions, though most of the actions are small and everyday. The lack of more typical science fiction features actually creates many questions about science fiction: how much science is enough? Which characters deserve stories? Why do we insist on envisioning our future as our past? Is there anything truly universal about humanity or is it all the product of our society? Clarke's writing is good enough and the questions that the book raises, seemingly effortlessly, are intriguing enough that the book is enjoyable even though is far outside what I would normally describe as a "good" science fiction book. It will obviously have a long life on syllabi of college science fiction courses, though it may not make much headway with fans who prefer action, hard scifi or even vigorous protagonists.

It's not a story of future heroism. It's not even, really, a story about robots. It's a story of live and failure and expectations. It is, perhaps, in its relentless examination of one woman's life, one of the most realistic science fiction stories ever told.