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.

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