I was looking through the Two Dudes archives the other day and realized that we haven’t a single CJ Cherryh review up. Considering both the author’s stature in SFF and the number of volumes consumed by both Dudes, this is a travesty. In a way though, I’m not surprised. Cherryh’s books are dense and challenging, hard enough to read, let alone turn into a pithy, 1000 word blog post. In fact, Cyteen took me more than a year to read. I started it during a particularly busy and trying time in real life, enough that I couldn’t devote the kind of energy required for a huge tome like Cyteen, then pecked away at it here and there before finally settling in for the last 300 pages. I honestly don’t know how Cherryh puts out the volume of work that she does. It’s hard enough for me to just read one of her books, let alone write something that intense and psychological. Maybe they’ve gotten lighter recently.
Cyteen is part of the Alliance-Union universe and, together with Downbelow Station, anchors the early part of the future history. These two are both Hugo winners and widely acknowledged classics; I have now read them both and agree with the conventional wisdom. While most of the Alliance-Union books are technically stand-alone, Cyteen is probably easier going after reading Downbelow Station, as some names and events are referenced. Neither are light reading, but none of the eight (I think) Cherryh books I have read were. Something about her style is claustrophobic, possibly because of the tightly limited third-person she maintains, usually with deeply messed up characters. Cyteen is no exception – the plot, such as it is, might best be described as “some really traumatized and/or weird people grow up.” But by the time any reader makes his or her way to Cyteen, (s)he likely knows what is coming, and also knows that the rewards are there for those who dig in.
The book is less a story than a history. There is no three act narrative arc, tightly plotted action, or anything that lends itself to Cliff’s Notes or Reader’s Digest. Instead, Cherryh follows a set of winding and intersecting paths taken by prominent figures at Reseune, the scientific and political capital of the Union that is located on the titular planet Cyteen. The reader is tossed into the deep end from the start, with the opening act consisting entirely of complex political infighting in a government about which almost no information is given. Things march on from there without respite, with clones, politics, escapes, degrading abuse, murder, more politics, guppy breeding, terrorists, and even more politics, for good measure. Much is unexplained, leaving it to the reader to infer from context, rely on other knowledge of the Alliance-Union universe, and read between the lines. The characters don’t explain anything that would be obvious to themselves and they present information in ways that protect or favor their positions. If the reader doesn’t engage, that reader will be left behind. Not everyone enjoys this sort of thing.
Somehow, despite being written in the early 1980s, Cyteen addresses issues that are still ahead of our time. While the thematic material is more or less timeless, things like equality, individuality, and redemption, Cherryh’s world building places them one step beyond the debates that everyone else participates in. The Union has already answered questions that we ask now and in our near future SF about cloning and mind conditioning, becoming a society that is recognizable, but clearly different on a fundamental level from anything we know now. This is part of Cherryh’s genius – the contours provided in the book give us just enough to see how Union functions, but leave enough hidden to keep it alien and unnerving.
Union is, if I may make a foray back into political science, a representative democracy. This much we can relate to, but the differences are the foundation of the story. The political axis is necessarily different from our own, but explained clearly. (The drivers of the debates are plots of other stories, notably 40,000 in Gehenna, forming a coherent future history.) The whole of society is markedly different from our own, reflecting in some ways a generalized and simplified Ancient China. There is a strict caste system, with a vast underclass of clones, or azis. (The clones are a result of policies instituted during the Company Wars, again described in other books.) The “real” people own their azis, but have a vaguely Confucian set of responsibilities towards them. Much of the society is a strict meritocracy, especially when the Science faction of the government is ascendant, with azis and humans attaining rank and power through their abilities. I imagine that other parts of Union are different, but we see Science in the book, and Science is all about competence. I rather doubt that Cherryh had China in mind when she created this society, but it is a possible reference point for the Confucian meritocracy in place.
With this system laid out, Cherryh probes the people that live in it and uses them to ask questions. She politely refrains from grinding axes, but certainly encourages thought. Equality and human rights run like a steady undercurrent throughout, with characters debating with each other, usually abstractly, over what life azis should be entitled to. There is an entire back story, barely hinted at, that deserves its own book; one character seems to have some master plan of raising the azis’ status over coming decades. Nature versus nurture arguments also get a look, as do questions of personal responsibility and redemption. It is left to the readers to decide if Ari Part Two deserves our sympathy, or if we have just spent 600 trade paperback pages with someone who is destined to be jerkwad.
A final surprise of Cyteen is how well it ages. The only technological bits that really stand out are the lack of mobile devices and the frequent references to “taking tape.” “Tape” is the subconscious training that everyone receives and is probably not an actual cassette tape; still the phrase feels weird to us digital types. These two aside, everything still feels cutting edge. The ethical questions are relevant, the politics and media resonate, and the regular guys checking into the office and logging eight hour days feel just like us, even if they happen to be designing special clone training programs. I was also surprised to see openly homosexual relations in a book from this era; not that it is unprecedented, but that is was so matter of fact. There is one aspect that dates the book: the characters are all unmodified, un-enhanced, analog humans. No crazy human variants or uploaded personalities here.
Coming up for air again, let’s go ahead and put Cyteen on the list of books every serious SF reader should know. Cherryh is a must read author anyway and this is one of the defining books of her most well-known series. The only question left for me is whether I go straight to the direct sequel, or if I stick with published order for these. I have no answer yet.