Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh science fiction book reviewsCyteen by C.J. Cherryh

After enjoying C.J. Cherryh‘s 1982 Hugo Award winner Downbelow Station, it was a natural thing to move on to her 1989 Hugo winner, Cyteen. I know that Cyteen is a very different creature, of course. It is a hefty 680 pages long, and extremely light on action. In fact, if you removed the extensive dialogue and exposition, I think the story would be about 50 pages long. That means the story had better be pretty compelling or it could be quite an ordeal to get through. Unfortunately, at 36 hours in audiobook format, I found Cyteen to be more of a chore than a pleasure. There’s no question of the seriousness and rigor of its exploration of power politics, the ethics of cloning, genetic engineering, and social conditioning, and a very drawn-out (and inconclusive) murder mystery. But it’s waaaaaay too long, utterly humorless, and the characters are quite unlikeable. If it weren’t a Hugo winner, I don’t think I could have gotten through it. If you are a very patient reader and fan of Cherryh’s larger Alliance-Union universe, this is definitely a key part of a grander, detailed future history. But as a stand-alone book, it was not an entertaining experience.

The story centers on Ariane Emory, a brilliant scientist and politician who runs the Reseune cloning research facility in Cyteen, the home planet of the Union that split from the Earth alliance (the story detailed in Downbelow Station). Ariane is embroiled in the political struggle between the Expansionist and Centrist factions, and is also instrumental in researching and refining the genetic engineering and conditioning techniques used to create the ‘azi’ army of mentally-conditioned soldiers for the Union army. They are human and self-conscious, but their conditioning is so powerful that their free will is quite limited. ‘Azi’ are considered anathema in the Alliance, yet another reason for their conflict.

Cyteen throws the reader directly into the thick of the political scheming, introducing character after character, and the first 100 pages or so is a major struggle to follow. The story doesn’t get going until a dreadful incident involving Ariane, a rival scientist named Jordan Warrick, his cloned son Justin Warrick, and his ‘azi’ companion Grant. This soon leads to the death of Ariane and the decision to clone Ariane as her loss will disrupt the balance of power in Union. Sounds like a promising start to an exciting story of political intrigue, with a murder to solve amid a complex and constantly changing galactic milieu.

Instead, the story slows to a painful crawl for the next several hundred pages, as we see Ari II growing up under the careful control of Denis and Giraud Nye. This could have been quite an interesting story at a fraction of the level of detail. Questions of free will, ethics, and nature vs. nurture are discussed in great depth, but the story … hardly anything happens for chapter after chapter. I’ve never read so much for so little gain. At times Cyteen feels like a far-future textbook on cloning techniques. This is in major contrast to Downbelow Station, which was also dense and complex, but that book had a breakneck pace that pulled the reader forward. It had terse dialogue and a constantly-shifting perspective among dozens of characters. In Cyteen, we have a large cast of characters, but all they do is talk, discuss, argue, and plot with little kinetic action or change of scenery.

Even when the perspective shifts to the 16-year-old Ariane II, which promises to make things interesting, very little of importance happens. There is a potentially tense story buried deep down, but it is hurt by the interminable pacing. The final 100 pages pick up the pace slightly, but only to end so inconclusively it’s a massive let-down. After all that work… Speaking of which, narrator Gabra Zackman does a valiant effort narrating this door-stopper, but I can only imagine she also must have been pretty exhausted by the end of it.

Here’s an excerpt about the conditioning process that will give you a taste … hungry for more?

Once an Alpha stops re-analyzing his input and starts outputting only, he’s gone completely eetee. Which is why, Justin says, Alpha azi can’t be tape-trained past a certain point, because they don’t learn to analyze and question the flux-level input they get later, and when they socialize too late, they go more and more internal because things actually seem too fast and too random for them, exactly the opposite of the problem the socialized Alphas have — too fast, though, only because they’re processing like crazy trying to make more out of the input than’s really there, because they don’t understand there is no system, at least there’s no micro-system, and they keep trying to make one out of the flux they don’t understand.


Which is why some Alphas go dangerous and why you have trouble getting them to take help-tapes: some start flux-thinking on everything, and some just schiz, de-structure their deep-sets and reconstruct their own, based on whatever comes intact out of the flux they’re getting. And after that you don’t know what they are. They become like CITs, only with some real strange logic areas.

Published in 1989. The saga of two young friends trapped in an endless nightmare of suspicion and surveillance, of cyber-programmed servants and a ruling class with century-long lives – and the enigmatic woman who dominates them all. Narrators Jonathan Davis and Gabra Zackman skillfully split up this sweeping sci-fi epic that is “at once a psychological novel, a murder mystery, and an examination of power on a grand scale.” (Locus)