Book Review: ‘Cyteen’, by C J Cherryh

3 03 2014

C J Cherryh (the terminal ‘h’ is in fact pseudonymous, and also silent) is an American SF / fantasy writer with over sixty novels to her credit. Her awards include the John W Campbell Award, three Hugos, and a Locus (the subject of this review, Cyteen, accounts for the Locus and one of the Hugos); she also has an asteroid, 77185 Cherryh, named in her honour.

cyteen_400Ariane Emory is the Councillor for the Bureau of Science, one of the nine supreme political figures in the multiple-world Union; Ariane (‘Ari’) is also inextricably connected with Reseune, the dominant genetic-industrial research centre on the planet of Cyteen that is the centre of Union government. At the start of Cyteen, Ari — a sharp-as-nails centenarian, herself gifted in genetic research, and a persistently shrewd operator — has made an enemy in Jordan Warrick, a rival researcher at Reseaune who has become concerned that Emory has been seeking to appropriate his research efforts for her own ends, a situation which is not helped when Ari initiates an ill-judged and psychologically-damaging dalliance with Warrick’s seventeen-year-old ‘son’ Justin (who is in fact Warrick senior’s personal replicant, or clone). Jordan has been agitating to be reassigned elsewhere, beyond the influence of Ariane Emory; as a result of the events precipitated by the revelation of Ari’s interference with Justin, Jordan gets his wish, but at terrible cost to himself and to a good many other people within Reseune. The majority of the book occupies itself with Ari and Justin striving to come to terms with who they are, and to understand the scope and the limitations of their abilities … as well as to figure out just where they stand in relation to one another.

(I am well aware that the capsule description of the book’s outline above leaves out a hell of a lot that is important, and that’s deliberate. I have a policy of treating as ‘fair game’ for disclosure in a review any plot point which is revealed less than a third of the way through the book; I’m breaking that rule with this review, because I think there are events within the book, even within the first third, that will have more impact if they’re not given away here.)

Cyteen is a massive book: the edition I read weighs in at 680 pages, and it’s fairly densely-spaced text. It would not surprise me to learn it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 words. I’m not a devotee of large novels, and I have to say I approached Cyteen with no little trepidation on this score. I finished the first novella-length chapter still without a clear idea of what I was dealing with: there is, I think it’s safe to say, a lot going on, and Cherryh, like Ari, is fully capable of throwing half a dozen seemingly-disparate things at you at once. By the end of the second chapter, though, I was hooked.

One of my deficiencies, I think (at least I have certain friends who tell me it is a deficiency) is that I seek to explain through comparison, which means that my natural inclination when looking to give an insight into the kind of book that is Cyteen is to say that it reads somewhat like a cross between Asimov’s Foundation series and Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. By which I mean that it combines something of the kind of interstellar-empire-politics that fuels Asimov’s work with the keenly attuned social awareness and personal depth that typifies le Guin’s writing; and yet, though this comparison might be of some use (it does, I think, have some validity), it might also mislead. A less direct but more pertinent comparison, by virtue of the book’s monolithic claustrophobia (it’s set, almost exclusively, within the one large building), its attention to detail, its focus on generational and dynastic struggle, intrigue, and Machiavellian manoeuvering, might be made with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books: although where Peake’s concern is to capture, in words, the images needed for the reader to envision the story in as much detail as possible, Cherryh’s focus is on the thought processes, and she is remarkably good at laying bare the motivations that lead people into (and out of) various predicaments. The book hits high marks as a keenly-focussed psychological novel.

It also works as first-rate science fiction, with an obvious focus on genetic research, cloning, and the sticking points of the nature versus nurture argument. (‘Soft’ science does not preclude ‘hard’ science fiction, and I would cite Cyteen as a case in point in this regard.) I found the book’s scientific content to be very well-drawn and overall highly credible; and its sense of both (a) the sometimes-glacial pace of scientific research (with innumerable dead ends and blind alleys, and progress that might, on occasion, be measured in decades) and (b) the overwhelming bitterness of academic bureaucracy definitely heighten its plausibility. (And I believe that I can see, in Cherryh’s extrapolated political system, having power over billions of people across scores of worlds, what is effectively a hyperelephantiased form of a typically dysfunctional University council).

There are probably some key examples of ‘future tech’ that I should mention, since they are central to the book’s evolution. The book makes the distinction between ‘born men’ (citizens, those conceived and born in the usual way, with chance playing a considerable part in their genotype) and ‘azis’ (with a precisely defined genotype, vat-grown, born into servitude and designed to perform particular functions within society, but able to attain citizenship under certain conditions). There is also a form of ‘automated learning’ involving ‘tape’, which is central to azi programming and which is also, on occasion, used on citizens. Described thus, these concepts probably sound dehumanising; but placed in the context of Cherryh’s imagined universe, with safeguards and oversight, they work. It is a society which is sympathetically visualised, and surprisingly immersive.

Ultimately, I suppose the focus of Cyteen is that of power versus vulnerability (and the opportunity for trust), and of nature versus nurture. There’s much made of the fact that Justin, Jordan’s clone, has a different personality, because of differences in his upbringing. And it’s fair to say, also, that Ari is not the same person at the end of the book as she was at the beginning …

I could say more, but I won’t. Other than that I found Cyteen to be a highly rewarding, intelligent, and deeply moving piece of SF.

(This is the fourth in my ‘XX Hard SF‘ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here. If you’d like to suggest further books which would fit the criteria — female writer, hard SF, novel / novella / collection of short fiction — please leave a comment. I have a total of seven books lined up for review at this date, including those already reviewed; I’d like to reach 20 reviews in the series (to provide a Roman-numeral justification for the ‘XX’ alongside the chromosomal reference), though that will almost certainly take until at least the end of this year, quite possibly longer. Ideally, also, I would want to review only one book by each author, so I’d be particularly grateful to anyone uncovering ‘new’ authors for me to review. And please note the requirement for ‘hard’ SF: I’m looking for work which pays serious attention to the scientific principles, rather than examples of ‘space opera’ and other subgenres of SF.)




6 responses

3 03 2014

Yay! Glad you enjoyed it, I was completely rapt when I first discovered it.

3 03 2014

I think I can see why. It’s a very impressive piece of work, with a remarkable sense of solidity and reality.

1 04 2014
Joachim Boaz

You should submit this (and any other reviews you have of SF written by women pre-2000) to Ian Sales’ review collating site, SF mistressworks.

Nice review!

1 04 2014

Thanks, Joachim! I’m glad you liked the review. And Ian’s site looks very useful — I’ll certainly contact him and offer the eligible reviews to his project.

1 04 2014
Joachim Boaz

I submit as many as possible — it might take a few months for yours to appear, he has them lined up for a few months (or at least last time I talked to him about scheduling).

15 12 2016
Cyteen, CJ Cherryh | SF Mistressworks

[…] This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie. […]

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