by C.J. Cherryh

Cover image

Series: Cyteen #1
Publisher: Warner Aspect
Copyright: 1988
Printing: September 1995
ISBN: 0-446-67127-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 680

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I've reviewed several other C.J. Cherryh books, somewhat negatively, which combine to give the impression I'm not a fan. That, however, is an artifact of when I started reviewing. I first discovered Cherryh with Cyteen some 20 years ago, and it remains one of my favorite SF novels of all time. After finishing my reading for 2011, I was casting about for what to start next, saw Cyteen on my parents' shelves, and decided it was past time for my third reading, particularly given the recent release of a sequel, Regenesis.

Cyteen is set in Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe following the Company Wars. It references several other books in that universe, most notably Forty Thousand in Gehenna but also Downbelow Station and some others. It also has some links with the Compact Space series (The Pride of Chanur and sequels), and more generally almost all of Cherryh's writing is loosely tied together by an overarching future history. But one does not need to read any of those other books before reading Cyteen; the book will fill you in on all of the politics and history you need to know. I read Cyteen first and have never felt the lack.

Be warned that Cyteen was at one time split into three books for publishing reasons: The Betrayal, The Rebirth, and The Vindication. This is an awful way to think of the book. There are no internal pauses or reasonable volume breaks; Cyteen is a single coherent novel, and Cherryh has requested that it never be broken up that way again. If you happen to find all three portions as your reading copy, they contain all the same words and are serviceable if you remember it's a single novel under three covers, but under no circumstances should you read one of those portions in isolation.

Human colonization has expanded out into the galaxy, but originally only by slower-than-light travel sponsored by the private Sol Corporation. The inhabitants of the far-flung stations and the crews of the merchant ships that supplied them have formed their own separate cultures, but remain attached to Earth until the discovery of FTL travel and a botched attempt by Earth to reassert its authority. By the time of Cyteen, there are three human powers: distant Earth (which plays little role in this book), the merchanter Alliance, and Union.

The planet Cyteen is one of only a few Earth-like worlds discovered by human expansion, and is the seat of government and the most powerful force in Union. This is primarily because of Reseune: the Cyteen lab that produces the azi.

If Cyteen is about any one thing, it's about azi: genetically engineered human clones who are programmed via intensive psychological conditioning starting before birth. The conditioning uses a combination of drugs to make them receptive and "tape," specific patterns of instruction and sensory stimulation. They are designed for specific jobs or roles, they're conditioned to be obedient to regular humans, and they're not citizens. They are, in short, slaves.

In a lot of books, that's as deep as the analysis would go. Azi are slaves, and slavery is certainly bad, so there would probably be a plot around azi overthrowing their conditioning, or around the protagonists trying to free them from servitude. But Cyteen is not any SF novel, and azi are considerably more complex and difficult than that analysis. We learn over the course of the book that the immensely powerful head of Reseune Labs, Ariane Emory, has a specific broader purpose in mind for the azi. One of the reasons why Reseune fought for and gained the role of legal protector of all azi in Union, regardless of where they were birthed, is so that they could act to break any permanent dependence on azi as labor. And yet, they are slaves; one of the protagonists of Cyteen is an experimental azi, which makes him the permanent property of Reseune and puts him in constant jeopardy of being used as a political prisoner and lever of manipulation against those who care about him.

Cyteen is a book about manipulation, about programming people, about what it means to have power over someone else's thoughts, and what one can do with that power. But it's also a book about connection and identity, about what makes up a personality, about what constitutes identity and how people construct the moral codes and values that they hold at their core. It's also a book about certainty: azi are absolutely certain, and are capable of absolute trust, because that's part of their conditioning. Naturally-raised humans are not. This means humans can do things that azi can't, but the reverse is also true. The azi are not mindless slaves, nor are they mindlessly programmed, and several of the characters, both human and azi, find a lot of appeal in the core of certainty and deep self-knowledge of their own psychological rules that azis can have. Cyteen is a book about emotions, and logic, and where they come from and how to balance them. About whether emotional pain and uncertainty is beneficial or damaging, and about how one's experiences make up and alter one's identity.

This is also a book about politics, both institutional and personal. It opens with Ariane Emory, Councilor for Science for five decades and the head of the ruling Union Expansionist party. She's powerful, brilliant, dangerously good at reading people, and dangerously willing to manipulate and control people for her own ends. What she wants, at the start of the book, is a project to attempt again to completely clone a Special (the legal status given to the most brilliant minds of Union). It was attempted before and failed, but Ariane believes it's now possible, with a combination of tape, genetic engineering, and a controlled environment, to reproduce the brilliance of the original mind. To give Union another lifespan of work by their most brilliant thinkers.

Jordan Warrick, another scientist at Reseune, wants this too, but for his own reasons. He has had a long-standing professional and personal feud with Ariane Emory and wants to be transferred out from under her to the new research station that would be part of the project, and he wants to bring his son Justin and his companion azi Grant with them. Justin is a PR, a parental replicate, meaning he shares Jordan's genetic makeup but was not an attempt to reproduce the conditions of Jordan's rearing. Grant was raised as his brother. And both have, for reasons that are initially unclear, attracted the attention of Ariane, who may be using them as pawns.

This is just the initial setup, and along with this should come a warning: the first 150 pages set up a very complex and dangerous political situation and build the tension that will carry the rest of the book, and they do this by, largely, torturing Justin and Grant. The viewpoint jumps around a fair amount, but Justin and Grant are the primary protagonists for this first section of the book. And while one feels sympathy for both of them, I have never, in my multiple readings of the book, particularly liked them. They're hard to like, as opposed to pity, during this setup, since they're in way, way over their heads, are constantly making mistakes, and are essentially having their lives destroyed.

Don't let this turn you off on the rest of the book; about 150 pages in, Cyteen takes a dramatic shift of focus. A new set of protagonists will be introduced who are some of the most interesting, complex, and delightful protagonists in any SF novel ever written, and who are very much worth waiting for. While Justin definitely has his moments later on (his life is so hard that his courage can be profoundly moving), it's not necessary to like him to love this book. That's one of the reasons why I so strongly dislike breaking it into three sections; that first section, which is mostly Justin and Grant, is not at all representative of the book.

I can't talk too much more about the plot without risking spoiling it, but it's a beautiful, taut, and complex story that is full of my favorite things in both settings and protagonists. Cyteen is a book about brilliant people who think on their feet, and Cherryh succeeds at showing this through what they do, which is rarely done as well as it is here. It's a book about remembering one's friends and remembering one's enemies, and waiting for the most effective moment to act, but it also achieves some remarkable transformations. About 150 pages in, you are likely to loathe almost everyone in Reseune; by the end of the book, you find yourself liking, or at least understanding, nearly everyone. This is extremely hard, and Cherryh pulls it off in most cases without even giving the people she's redeeming their own viewpoint sections. Other than perhaps George R.R. Martin I've not seen another author do this as well.

But, more than anything else, Cyteen is a book with the most wonderful feeling of catharsis. I think this is one of the reasons why I adore this book and have difficulties with some of Cherryh's other works. She's always good at ramping up the tension and putting her characters in awful, untenable positions. Less frequently does she provide the emotional payoff of turning the tables, where you get to watch a protagonist do everything you've been wanting to do for hundreds of pages, except even better and more delightfully than you would have come up with. Cyteen is one of the most emotionally satisfying books I've ever read.

I could go on and on; there is just so much here that I love. Deep questions of ethics and self-control, presented in a way that one can see the consequences of both bad decisions and good ones and contrast them. Possibly the best political negotiations in all of fiction. A wonderful look at friendship and loyalty from several directions. Two of the best semi-human protagonists I've seen, who one can see simultaneously as both wonderful friends and utterly non-human, who put nearly all of the androids in fiction to shame by being something trickier and more complex. A wonderful unfolding sense of power. A computer that can somewhat anticipate problems and somewhat can't, that encapsulates much of what I love about semi-intelligent bases in science fiction. Cyteen has that rarest of properties of SF novels: both the characters and the technology meld in a wonderful combination where neither could exist without the other, where the character issues are illuminated by the technology and the technology supports the characters.

I have, for this book, two warnings. The first, as previously mentioned, is that the first 150 pages of setup is necessary and important, but painful to read through, and I never fully warmed to Justin and Grant throughout. I think it's quite likely one would start this book and be trying to figure out, 50 or 100 pages in, why I like it so much. Stick with it; it gets better. Justin and Grant continue to be a little annoying, but there's so much other good stuff going on that it doesn't matter.

The other warning is that part of the setup of the story involves the rape of an underage character. This is mostly off-camera, but the emotional consequences are significant (as they should be) and are frequently discussed throughout the book. There is also rather frank discussion of adolescent sexuality later in the book. I think both of these are integral to the story and handled well, but they could be triggers for some readers, so it's worth knowing in advance what's coming.

Those warnings notwithstanding, this is simply one of the best SF novels ever written. It uses technology to pose deep questions about human emotions, identity, and interactions, and it uses complex and interesting characters to take a close look at the impact of technology on lives. And it does this with a wonderfully taut, complicated plot that sustains its tension through all 680 pages, and with characters whom I absolutely love. I have no doubt that I'll be reading it for a fourth and fifth time some years down the road.

Followed by Regenesis, although Cyteen stands well entirely on its own and there's no pressing need to read the sequel.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-01-03

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21