Cyteen takes place in Cherryh’s expansive Alliance-Union universe, the same universe that was home to the 1982 winner, Downbelow Station. It focuses on Cyteen, an important Union planet and the home of radical genetic and psychological engineering. As I said with the earlier Alliance-Union novel, I have a lot of respect for Cherryh, but again, I was disappointed.
Cyteen is the longest winner I’ve covered so far (my edition was 680 dense pages), and it took me, by far, the longest to read. Frankly, this was a trudge.
Cyteen focuses on Ariane Emory, a supergenius “Special” who had steered Cyteen society through political and scientific challenges for almost a century at the novel's beginning (circa 2400 AD). Cyteen consists mostly of clones divided into two castes – CITs are citizens while the azi are closer to proprietary people, almost slaves. Both groups learn through an artificial programming method called “tape,” though the azi are much more heavily programmed and therefore have a hard time with free will. The elderly Ari (though not that outwardly elderly due to rejuvenation treatments) has overseen this system’s development, and she has grand plans for keeping her society stable. These plans happen to involve molesting the teenage son of one of her chief rivals, Jordan Warwick. Shortly thereafter, Ari is killed. The rest of the novel follows the attempts of Ari’s allies to raise her clone and to guide her development so that she is just as brilliant and ruthless. So, it’s sort of a twisted bildungsroman.
It’s also fascinating world, and the characters are very rich and complicated. The themes are certainly intriguing as well, as the book uses the technology of cloning to examine the concept of free will. Will Ariane II end up as cold and ruthless as the original? How immoral is it to control the pre-programmed azi? These are fascinating questions, though Cherryh doesn’t offer much in the way of answers. There are also some big problems here. First, there’s a lot of dense exposition, and Cherryh throws way too many concepts and characters at the reader in the first chapter. I also had this problem with Downbelow Station, but I did manage to catch up with the myriad characters and factions more quickly here. Nonetheless, I think it would have helped to have more familiarity with the Alliance-Union universe. The Chanur stories come up a few times, and another novel, 40,000 in Gehenna, is quite heavily referenced and becomes a central plot point.
Speaking of plot, there isn’t much of one. Characters have a lot of tense, manipulative conversations, and that’s about it. There are two or three major turning points, and a quick action sequence in the final chapter (which, ironically considering the novel’s length and general interminability, feels rushed), but most of the time, people are talking - usually about the same couple of political issues (azi and foreign relations). The novel is short on plot and long on words. Things are just getting moving when the book finally ends; a year or two ago, Cherryh actually published a sequel, Regenesis, that sounds more interesting, though I think I’ll skip it. As I said, it’s a richly developed world, but perhaps Cherryh is too wrapped up in it. She seems to think that every word her characters speak to each other is important. Instead, most of their discussions are redundant and concerned with cultural subtleties and minutiae. And the prose is dry as a bone. There’s a lot to like here, and at three-hundred pages this could have been a dense, thematically rich and relevant thriller. Instead, it’s mostly bloat.