"Frankenstein's Daughter" by Maureen McHugh: An Appreciation by Ted Chiang
Now that the story's been published online and in print, I notice that some reviewers have expressed similar opinions, saying that its SFnal trope is under-utilized. This is certainly a response I've had to many, many stories I've read, including stories with far more futuristic settings than "Frankenstein's Daughter." But let me suggest that, upon examination, this is a story that couldn't be told without its SFnal component. The reason can be summed up in one word: blame.
The word "blame" doesn't actually appear anywhere in the story, but it permeates the lives of its characters. If six-year-old Cara's mental and physical handicaps were the result of random chance, no one would blame her mother; she might blame herself, but no one else would. But Cara's condition is a direct result of her mother's decision to use cloning, and everyone knows it. Whether they say it aloud or not, whether they are right to do so or not, people blame her.
This is clearest in the scene where Cara's mother takes her to the emergency room for an asthma attack. "The doctor wants to punish me," she thinks. "I can imagine what he would like to ask. Why the hell did you do it? How do you justify it?" These are not questions that the mothers of ordinary handicapped children are ever asked; this is not a scene that would appear in a mainstream story. And even if nowhere else in the story are such accusations as visible, it's clear that this is something that Cara's mother has had to deal with ever since Cara was born.
And let's be clear: Cara's mother did make a bad decision. Partly because she chose to use cloning when the technology hadn't been perfected yet, but also because she was trying to recreate her dead child Kelsey, when recreating the dead is not what cloning does. Even if Cara had been born healthy, she would not have been Kelsey. By thinking of a new baby as a duplicate of someone else instead of as an individual in her own right, Cara's mother made a terrible mistake.
Maybe it's not fair to blame her for this. In response to the doctor's censure, Cara's mother thinks, "How do I tell him, tell them, that when Cara was conceived, I wasn't sane? Nothing prepares you for the death of a child. Nothing teaches you how to live with it." She's right. There's no way to know how you'd react after the death of a child, and maybe it's not reasonable to hold someone responsible for their decisions under that kind of stress. But that doesn't mean all decisions are good ones. Cara's mother made a bad decision, and she knows it.
And her awareness of her own responsibility is what makes the story's ending so resonant. Cara's parents have just picked up their son Robert from the police station after he was arrested for vandalism, and Robert tries to avoid his parents' punishment by running down the street. Robert's not just trying to escape bad luck, a lousy hand of cards he was dealt; he's trying to escape responsibility for his own ill-considered actions. And though escape may be impossible, that's an impulse his mother can identify with.
To me, "Frankenstein's Daughter" says more about the actual consequences of cloning than any story filled with tank-grown armies of identical workers. It may make its point quietly, but it's saying something that a mainstream story can't, and that's the mark of real SF.
Link to story.