My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I try to read every Hugo Award nominee. For a reason I don’t remember, I never read Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh when it was nominated in 1989. Maybe my library didn’t have a copy; maybe I was intimidated by the length of the book (680 densely packed pages) (or I didn’t have enough time to finish); or perhaps I had read stuff by Cherryh before and had been underwhelmed. Whatever the reason, I recently decided to give Cyteen a try after I read a blog post extolling its virtues. In fact, the blogger claimed to have read Cyteen over 40 times! That’s almost twice a year, every year since it’s been published. I can only name a handful of books I’ve read twice, and I’ve read only one or two books three times—ever. So when someone takes the time to read a 680-page book twice a year, I figure there must be something worthwhile to it.
It took two months (not every day, to be sure), but I finally finished slogging through Cyteen. I can say that it’s a perfectly fine book, and probably worthy of the Hugo Award versus the other nominees that year: Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card, Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold, Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling, and Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson.
Cyteen is part of Cherryh’s Alliance-Union future history into which most of her books fall. Cyteen is a world that has become the center of the Union, a far-future federation of human space colonists who have left the Earth behind. Reseune is a scientific facility on Cyteen that is devoted to human cloning. The most influential person in Reseune is the powerful and domineering Ariane Emory, a genius whose political and scientific manipulations have created many enemies. Cyteen tells the story of Ari’s life, death, and rebirth.
Rejuv treatments allow humans to live to be well over 100 years old, perhaps as much as 200. The first quarter of the book chronicles Ari’s life as the 120-year-old Councilor for Science, the de facto leader of Cyteen’s ruling body. Then Ari is found dead, and the authorities rule it murder. Ari’s former research partner, Jordan Warrick, is the prime suspect. He initially denies it, but is eventually coerced into confessing under an agreement to let himself be exiled to another facility and for Justin, his clone “son,” to be left at Reseune. The Cyteen authorities go along with the deal because Jordan is a “Special,” a genius of unparalleled abilities that the government needs to continue working.
When Ari died, she had been working on setting up a project to clone herself. The authorities decide to accelerate the program because they need her expertise to continue the biological research she was involved with. Apparently, they felt no one, not even Jordan, could understand and extend the research, and were willing to wait 20 or more years for Ari’s clone to mature.
The remainder of Cyteen recounts Ari II’s first 20 years. To make sure she is as close to Ari I as possible, Ari II undergoes psychogenetic manipulation: every facet of her childhood is strictly controlled to be as close to Ari I’s as possible, including having her surrogate mother “die” when Ari II is seven. Because Ari I had been planning to clone herself anyway, she had compiled a massive library of interactive computer files that she could use to impart her wisdom to Ari II.
In the universe of Cyteen, there are different classes of clones. Ari II, being the product of a Special, is a PR, or Personal Replicate, considered to be a CIT, or citizen, and is raised by human guardians. Other clones, known as azi, are genetically engineered, have no legal standing, and learn everything from tapes tailored to their specific positions in life—they are essentially slaves. Ari II has two azi companions that are raised alongside of her to simulate Ari I’s azi companions. Florian and Catlin are Ari II’s confidants and bodyguards. Justin has an azi, Grant, whom he loves and lives with. Cyteen’s central question revolves around the ethics of human cloning and whether nature or nurture determines the essence of humanness. It’s also an in-depth study of how powerful individuals are created and to what extent that power is innate. The book is also an allegory about slavery, although that message largely eluded me, since the azis seen most often, Florian, Catlin, and Grant, are essentially treated as equals by their masters.
The writing style is very good. Cherryh’s future history is rich and deep. It’s realistic and explores serious human issues. Cyteen is a fascinating society, a virtual utopia for CITs and a virtual prison for azis. One of the amazing feats of the book is how it manages to turn a very unsympathetic character like Ari I into the sympathetic and relatable Ari II.
I found a number of drawbacks to the novel. Ari II was developed very well, Ari I and Justin to a lesser extent, but almost everyone else was a cipher. There were so many secondary characters that it was hard to keep track of who was simply background and who was significant. There were dense pages of infodumps explaining the history and nature of the society and its castes, but these were hard to follow for someone not familiar with Cherryh’s universe. The many schemes and hidden agendas that people had were hard to keep straight. Perhaps if I had had more attachment to the characters, it would have been easier to follow. The book is also filled with page after page of dry politics—lots and lots of talk, not a lot of action.
The central mystery of who killed Ari I is not resolved, either. It is clear even at the beginning that Jordan is innocent and is being played for political purposes. Evidence revealed at the end of the book completely exonerates him. My guess is that it was either an accident or suicide; we learn that Ari I knew she had terminal cancer that even rejuv treatments could not overcome, and it would be within character for her to manipulate her second coming by framing her rival. Supposedly, the sequel to Cyteen, Regenesis (2009), answers the mystery, but at this point I don’t think I really care that much.
On the whole, I’m glad I read Cyteen, but I won’t be rereading it.