Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Review: Cyteen [1988]

Cyteen, by C.J. Cherryh is a voluminous novel that weaves together elements of political intrigue, personal relationships, sexual abuse, human growth and development, colonial expansionism, and identity. But to sum it up in one word, it's about cloning. In fact, despite the fact that the book was written in the 80s, its subject makes it surprisingly relevant today. The question of genetic modification is more prevalent in today's news (see here, here, and here). Many people are leery of cloning anything at all, but they start getting really nervous when the subject turns to the re-production of human beings, which is exactly the issue probed by Cyteen. Some might argue that the essence of being human is the common understanding that each person has a unique identity. Theoretically, even if another person was created out of your genetic material, there would be enough differences in parenting techniques or external world events to create another unique individual who simply looks disturbingly similar. Cyteen represents an inquiry into whether exact replication ("psychogenesis," or cloning of the mind as well as the body) could be accomplished by reproducing the environment and the (theoretical) personality triggers, as well as the gene set.

As the novel begins, we are introduced to Ariane Emory, nearing the end of her life, daughter of pioneering genetic researchers who invented the cloning laboratory Reseune, located on the planet Cyteen. Reseune produces and trains the majority of "azi," or cloned people, who are created with specific skill sets for designated occupations in what was originally a sparsely populated territory. They are trained via psychologically-linked "tape sets" that make the entire group, regardless of variations for level and occupation, uncomfortable with sudden change or ambiguity and dependent on their human Supervisors. In essence, the azi are a sub-class of human trained to do jobs that citizens, or CITs, don't want to do. There isn't much else to differentiate the azi from the CITs, but the reality of their existence leads to fear, suspicion, and terrorism among some factions in the colony. The plot of the first part of the book is largely political and concludes with power-broker Emory being assassinated, whereupon her gene set is immediately put into production to form an Ariane Emory II.

The reader doesn't actually spend very much time with the original Ariane Emory, with the result that we don't get a clear or even very favorable impression, considering her manipulation of others and sexual abuse of Justin Warrick. Some reviews that I've read criticize the book for its slow pace, particularly in the beginning, but I feel that the careful layout of the social and political structure Union, Cyteen, and Reseune itself (where the action largely takes place) is especially important as Ariane Emory II begins to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor. These are the central question of the book: How is human identity shaped? What makes a person unique? Can Reseune successfully implement a process for re-creating uniqueness? How do humans learn and take in information? Here there are two extremes: the azi are artificially created; they "take tape" instead of being reared by parent(s). Ari II is in a peculiar situation as a PR or Personal Replicate: she was born in the lab, but raised by a human parent. She is given tape and her education proceeds along a path that, ideally, will force her to become exactly the brilliant but shadowy figure we were introduced to on page one. If the plan goes too well, will she retain her genetic double's fondness for exploiting naive young men? How difficult will it be for her to interact with the "Family" at Reseune, most of whom had strong feelings toward her predecessor? How close is Ari II to Ari I?
What it feels like, uncle Denys, what it feels like--is, you think,--I'd never do that. But eventually you would. You almost remember--remember things. Because they're a part of the whole chain of events that lead to the point you go on from.
The interplay of all these elements, and of both human and azi characters, strong world-building, and looming political intrigue and the unsolved mystery of Ari I's death all make this an excellent read.

I give it an A.

Random Notes:
Surprisingly, there isn't much technology in the book that would make the modern reader huff and mutter "anachronism." One of the things I like best about Cyteen is the flawed nature of its characters; because the society relies on the tape system of education, a character might even begin to question whether their flaws, their motivations, and their desires are real or impressed upon them by psychological manipulation.

The book is part of Cherryh's Alliance-Union series but can be read independently. Regenesis advertises itself as "the long-awaited sequel to the Hugo-Award Winning Novels Cyteen and Downbelow Station." I guess I'll have to re-read that next.

Questions I would like Regenesis to answer, or subjects it could address, after re-reading the first book (warning: spoiler alert!):
1. Half of me is still wondering the answer to the question: Who killed Ariane Emory? It is amazing to have gone through 600+ pages and still not know for sure. On the other hand, the uncertainty is kind of fun.
2. There are bits here and there about Emory's manipulation of the Azi genesets, especially on the newly discovered planet of Gehenna, that could have radical implications for the future of Union as a whole. I hope that this will be the subject of the next book, but hey, you never know.
3. It would be cool if there were a Denys Nye II to go along with a Giraud Nye II. One can imagine there being an infinite number of IIs running around, making life complicated for everyone who knew the originals.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Spam of the Day

Become her master, he, whose rod can show her where heaven is.

Really, there aren't any words.

The Insidious Anchovy, Or, When is Vegetarian not Vegetarian?

According to Merriam-Webster (located right here in Springfield, MA along with the Basketball Hall of Fame and the ghost of Dr. Seuss), an anchovy is:

: any of a family (Engraulidae) of small fishes resembling herrings that includes several (as Engraulis encrasicholus) that are important food fishes used especially in appetizers, as a garnish, and for making sauces and relishes

It doesn't actually look or sound right to say "anchovy" rather than "anchovies." The question appears to be: are anchovies vegetarian in any way? The answer, according to me, is no. If an anchovy is a part of a "family of small fishes," then it is not in any way vegetarian, which, according to MW, is a diet "consisting wholly of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and sometimes eggs or dairy products." We run in to this question more often than not when dealing with people of an older generation or certain religious persuasion, who have been culturally programmed to feel that fish, and sometimes even chicken, is not meat. Possibly because of reasons like this? I don't know, it's a mystery to me, but it results in things like the "vegetarian" jello-chicken salad that my grandmother once made for me. The line is drawn in different places for a lot of vegetarians. For me, everything that once had eyes is out, except potatoes. I make exceptions for marshmallows (gelatin), eggs, and the grease that undoubtedly coats my diner-grilled french toast and grilled cheese. But this issue is actually seriously annoying. If something is labeled "vegetarian," it shouldn't have anchovies, or beef or chicken stock, or gelatin, or (shudder) rennet. We spend enough of our time asking these questions for things at restaurants that aren't labeled at all to worry if we're really safe NOT asking them about things that are labeled! If anyone who actually owns a restaurant or writes menus ever reads this: please err on the side of conservative vegetarianism! Thanks, I'm done for now.

Doing more research on the anchovies front, I was horrified to discover that Cheez Whiz is one of those products that contain anchovies. Gross. I mean, why? I guess it's not surprising that a product that deliberately misspells a word in its name would add a crazy ingredient. But really, that's unnecessary. I guess I'll also be staying away from Worcestershire Sauce, which was in my "vegetarian" beet soup the other night. Thanks for nothing, Butternuts!

Someone has a recipe for vegetarian anchovies, for those people that just can't live without them. Shockingly, I am not in that group. Even when I was not a vegetarian, I couldn't stand fish or any kind of seafood. Now I'm just glad that I don't have to fake some excuse for not eating them.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Restaurant Review: Butternuts

Located in Hadley, MA, Butternuts has long been a subject of curiosity (and some mockery) to some of us who often travel along Rt. 9. I selected it as a possible Valentine's Day venue because:

1) It seemed from its website and the prices of its entrees to be in the category of a "nice" restaurant for a festive occasion.
2) Unlike many nice restaurants in our area, it has more than 1-2 vegetarian options. I like eggplant once in a very long while, but I don't like feeling cornered into ordering it.
3) It's located within a 20 minute drive from our house.

And now, on to the review. Butternuts suffers from an identity crisis. It has several trappings of a more upscale restaurant (higher prices, ginormous bar, Asian-inspired decor such as screens and paper lanterns), but the clientele was largely elderly and families with younger children, and several cues (such as the fried fish stick odor) led to our conclusion: Butternuts is more like a Family Restaurant than a swanky dining experience. That's not to say that the food was bad, or the atmosphere was unpleasant. Aside from overly inquisitive servers, our dining experience was quite agreeable--it just wasn't what either of us expected.

After some delicious warm bread with herb butter, I ordered the Beet-Apple Soup with Horseradish garnish (in the shape of a heart!) off of the special Valentine's Day menu--one of the few vegetarian items. It was . . . a lot like pureed beets. But it was interesting, and I'm glad that I didn't play it safe. For an entree, I selected the Pasta Michel: "baby spinach with artichoke hearts, red roasted peppers, mushrooms, pine nuts and raisins in lemon scented olive oil sauce." It was a nice, light dish with a good combination of flavors, especially the sweetness of the raisins and the salty artichoke hearts. My dinner companion ordered the Butternut Lasagna: "layers of Hadley butternut squash, wild mushrooms, sweet onions, sage, ricotta and our three cheese blend nestled in blankets of egg pasta sheets." We had assumed it would be like a "signature dish," considering the restaurant's name, but it was a little disappointing, seeming more like a pastry than lasagna, with not enough Butternut flavor. We elected to have dessert at home, I think because we were both full. Overall, it was a good experience, but I'm not sure that it will join the ranks of our favorite Occasion Restaurants, and the prices are too high to merit putting it into our regular rotation. However, it was nice to find a restaurant in the area that believes in providing vegetarian options for its clients and using locally-grown produce to make those meals.

Grade: B-

Random notes: Why did the Caesar salad, with a description that included anchovies, have a V for Vegetarian beside it?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Movie Review: Coraline

Just a quick note to endorse the newly released movie Coraline, as many others already have. I've never read the book, but do follow the author's blog as well as several other blogs that were involved in the fantastic marketing push before the movie's release. The theater was not full, and the crowd was distressingly loud, but the movie itself was well plotted and paced, and the animation was lush and realistic. I wish I had a house like that. We opted to see the movie in 3D, which was . . . unnecessary? Ultimately it didn't seem to add or detract to much from the viewing experience, except the annoyance of wearing glasses over your glasses. If you don't want to pay the $3.50 3D glasses surcharge, don't bother with the 3D version. Whatever else, the experience has motivated me to read the book (or, more precisely, listen to the audio version read by Gaiman himself), which I am glad to see is in high demand in my library system.

Monday, February 9, 2009

My Kingdom for Some Free Time

So, after reading this List of 10 Awesome Fantasy Series, I am even more convinced that my New Year's Resolution (which was not to re-read, as is my perpetual habit, but to read new things) was right on the mark! However, I am at the moment caught re-reading a book in order to read a new book in the series. The book is Cyteen, by C.J. Cherryh, which was recommended to me by my sister (my guru for SF that I might actually like) quite some time ago. I read it, I enjoyed it--it was originally published in the 80s, won the Hugo Award, and it is awesome! End of story.

However, I read recently that Cherryh was coming out with a direct sequel, Regenesis. Well, that caused a quandary. Is it worth it to read a 680 page book (which had been split for publication into three shorter books at some point, but not apparently at Cherryh's will) to catch up on everything that happened? The answer is, of course, yes. Especially for Cherryh, who is dense, and asking her readers tough questions about cloning, and nature vs. nurture, and expansionism, and human psychology. I have deliberately avoided reading plot summaries for Regenesis, as I do not want to be spoiled for the rest of Cyteen. If it sucks, I don't want to know until I get to the last page. When I'm done, I'll go back to tackling one of the 80+ items on my immediate "to-read" list, none of which I have read before.

Spam of the Day

The ultimate power of pheromones available for women.

Tell me more, I'm listening.