Cyteen: Exhausting study of clones, identity, and power

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)

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. “…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.”

    Well, that sounds like me!

    I’ve never read this series of hers, but I will give Downbelow Station a try. And maybe I’ll set Cyteen aside for some point when I have a lot of downtime.

  2. This is how I feel about the book I’ve been reading for the last month: Peter F. Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction.

    Wow, that cover!!

    • I know, that cover.

    • Yes, The Reality Dysfunction makes Cyteen look relatively slim at over 40 hours in audio! And it’s just the first book of the Night’s Dawn Trilogy. Eager to read your review. At some point I plan to tackle Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga, but those two books are even bigger still.

      And yes, the covers for all three paperback editions of Cyteen (split into 3 parts against the author’s wishes) are certainly memorable…

      • I’m with you on this one, Stuart. I enjoyed the ideas of Cyteen, even the inherent humanity of the story, but the wealth of spurious material getting at that humanity dragged the novel down. It was a slog. Have you tried Cherryh’s Foreigner series? I’m far from close to finishing her oeuvre, but it’s the best I’ve encountered so far, particularly the second book, Invader. There are few books in science fiction which get at cultural differences – dare I use the word Otherness – in such an effective (and affecting) manner.

      • Streetcar Naked Desire /

        Big Peter F. Hamilton fan here, I’ve read every adult novel of his twice :D

        His earlier books tend to share some of the pacing problems as Cyteen, but he gets better and better about it as his career progresses. Night’s Dawn and at least the first Commonwealth duology — Pandora’s Star/Judas Unchained — are like this, but the sprawl is maybe more relatable “slice of life on spaceships” type stuff that’s itself a large part of the appeal. The Void trilogy (which also takes place in the Commonwealth universe) is his magnum opus IMO, where all the detail is necessary to tell the story, and the pacing and action and humor are all done perfectly.

        Reading the Pandora’s duology isn’t necessary to enjoy the Void trilogy (and may even be better in reverse order), but I don’t think it spoils anything to note that he introduces a Chekov’s gun in Pandora but doesn’t fire it until the end of Void, which is a fantastic literary achievement to me. I’d tell anybody to read Void, and if you like it, then go back and read his other stuff.

        • Stuart /

          Your comments come at the perfect timing, as I was just thinking a year after this review whether to finally give Hamilton’s Commonweath duology a go first, or try the Void trilogy instead. I still tend to prefer chronological order, but I can see how starting with the Void might be an easier path. Thanks for the tips!

          • Streetcar Naked Desire /

            I should have added that the Commonwealth universe is about how I like to imagine a best-case scenario for future humanity, should we be lucky enough to survive long enough to make it to the stars (and should FTL/wormholes and rejuvenation treatments prove to be possible…).

            There’s also the Fallers duology, chronologically between Pandora and Void, but in this one case it’s almost certainly “meant” to be read after you’ve read all of Void — lots of in-jokes that you’d miss, at least. So I wouldn’t start with that one, but it probably doesn’t matter too much if you start on Pandora or the first Void. Whichever one grips you, I guess :D

  3. Tyson /

    I think the heart of Cyteen, and perhaps the reason it’s so well regarded would be it’s slow-burn intensity. After books like ‘down below station, hell-burner etc, we’ve seen a lot of one side of the union-alliance conflict. Cyteen finally gives us our first glimpse (well…aside from 40,000 in Gehena) of the Union side. and strange it is.

    We know from a few brief passages from Downbelow station and others how strange the Union (and their Azi are, and how different from earth, but it’s not until you’re enmeshed in the day to day work in the labs with Arianne, Jordan, Justin, etc that you feel the claustraphobia of that society.

    The constant ‘look over your shoulder’ feeling of paranoia, the constantly shifting alliances, the political all adds up to a slow burn of a book..but what a book it is.

    I felt particularly interested in Justin’s shifting position. Highly intelligent, he’s sent reeling after an initial conflict with the elder Arriane. And over the years, you see how that one conflict leads to so many things.

    I think the length of the story also is important. You need to feel the length of time…the years of (in Arriane’s case, growing up) and Justin’s case – of growing older in a hyper-paranoid society.

    All in all, it’s long been one of my favs. (along with the sequel ‘Re-genesis’)

    • Tyson, thanks for sharing why you consider Cyteen one of your favorites. Indeed, the claustrophobia and discomfort of Union society was fully achieved, even if it made for a long and difficult listening experience for me. I can see the case for also having the long time scale to show the impact of the society on the main characters. Still, it was a bit too slow-burning and lacking in dynamism for me, but I can understand your take on it as well.

  4. Nigel Campbell /

    I found Downbelow Station to be a bit of a chore as an audio book (at 19 hours) but read Cyteen and found it to be one of the better sci-fi books I’ve ever read and well deserving of its gongs. The problem is really the length of time it takes to read an audio book – I could see Cyteen being fairly tedious in that format.

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