When bestselling and award-winning SFF author C.J. Cherryh was named the 32nd SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master last year, I knew I had to read and review something she had written. I own a few Cherryh titles, but they're in storage somewhere and I couldn't find them. Perusing various threads on message boards, I discovered that a majority of the author's fans consider Downbelow Station and Cyteen to be her best novels to date. Both have won the Hugo Award for best novel and both appear on basically every single "Best science fiction books of all time" lists out there. Hence, it seemed that I couldn't go wrong with either of them.
I elected to go for Downbelow Station first because, even though it's part of the Alliance-Union series, the novel reads like a stand-alone. My only concern was that it might not have aged well. Originally published in 1981, the book was now 35 years old. And unlike fantasy, older scifi titles often tend to lose a lot of their luster as time goes by. Not so with Downbelow Station, I was pleasantly surprised. True, some of the technology was a bit obsolete. But it could stand on its own and give most recent space opera books a run for their money. All in all, in terms of plot and characterization, it was an excellent read!
Be that as it may, Cherryh fans were quick to point out that Cyteen was a better, more ambitious story. Understandably, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy and review it. From the very beginning you realize that this is going to be something special. Cyteen is definitely one of the very best science fiction novels I have ever read. For a while, it looked as though it would garner a perfect score from me. But the closer I got to the end, the more it became evident that the author couldn't possibly close the show adequately with that dwindling pagecount. Problem is, Cyteen ends in an abrupt fashion and offers no resolution whatsoever. Little did I know that the story continues in Regenesis, the direct sequel to Cyteen. I was shocked to discover that it took C. J. Cherryh twenty-one years to write that book! I simply couldn't believe my eyes when I read that. Imagine waiting for over two decades to find out how what is considered one of the best science fiction novels ever written ends. Makes you realize that George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss are not that bad, right? In any event, I have a copy of Regenesis on its way, so I won't have to wait for a long time before I can sit down and read it. This lack of a genuine ending prevented this one from getting a perfect score, yet there is no denying that Cyteen remains an incredible read. And like Downbelow Station, though it is twenty-nine years old, Cyteen stands head and shoulders above most scifi titles still in print today.
Here's the blurb:
A brilliant young scientist rises to power on Cyteen, haunted by the knowledge that her predecessor and genetic duplicate died at the hands of one of her trusted advisors. Murder, politics, and genetic manipulation provide the framework for the latest Union-Alliance novel by the author of Downbelow Station. Cherryh's talent for intense, literate storytelling maintains interest throughout this long, complex novel.
Like Downbelow Station, Cyteen is set in the Alliance-Union universe. For years and years, space was explored by the Earth Company, a private corporation which became extremely wealthy and powerful. What is known as the Beyond began with space stations orbiting the stars nearest Earth. And those early stations were emotionally and politically dependent on the Earth Company. A number of star systems were found to lack planets suitable for colonization, so space stations were built in orbit instead, each of them a stepping-stone for further space exploration. Then, Pell's World was discovered to be habitable and Pell Station was built. This newly discovered planet altered the power balance of the Beyond forever, as Earth was no longer the anchor that kept this incredibly vast empire together. And Pell was just the first living planet. Then came Cyteen and others, and a new society grew in the farther reaches of space. Earth's importance continued to fade and the Earth Company's profits continued to diminish as the economic focus of space turned outward. When Earth began to lose control of its more distant stations and worlds, the Earth Company Fleet was sent to enforce its will in the Beyond. This led to a prolonged war with the breakaway Union, based at Cyteen. Caught between the two factions are the stationers and the merchanters who crew the freighters that maintain interstellar trade between planets and stations. This conflict came to be known as the Company War.
While Downbelow Station took place during the final days of the war, Cyteen occurs decades following its end. The entire novel takes place on planet Cyteen, and this one is more hard science fiction than space opera. Cyteen is home to the research facility of Reseune, which holds the monopoly on all research and development of human cloning. The Union boosts its population and its army with genetically engineered and psychologically conditioned human clones. These azi, as the clones are known, are seen as an abomination by Earth and the Alliance. This is a dense and brilliant work that explores the concepts of free will, identity, and personality, as well as the ethics surrounding human cloning, genetic manipulation, social conditioning, and the psychological and emotional repercussions associated with these things. It is well nigh impossible to put a distinct label on Cyteen. It's a richly detailed and complex novel that is not always easy to read. Some readers might find that off-putting, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded with an amazing science fiction psychological thriller/political murder mystery hybrid.
Once again, the characterization is interesting because it features a cast of protagonists who are at odds with each others. Ariane Emory takes center stage throughout Cyteen. Now 120 years old, she has been running Reseune since the death of her parents, the original founders of the research facility. She is one of fourteen "Specials", Union-certified geniuses, and is also a member of the Council of Nine, the elected executive body of the Union. As such, she is one of the most powerful individuals in the Union. Ariane Emory leads the Expansionists, one of the two principal political factions, whose mission seeks to expand the Union through space exploration, the construction of new stations, and human cloning. The Centrists and Abolitionists oppose them and would rather focus on the existing stations and discovered planets. Jordan Warrick, fellow Special, is Emory's former colleague and bitter rival. He has created a clone of himself named Justin that he raises as his son. The boy is forced to work for Emory to help insure his father's good behavior and grows close to her. Taking advantage of him by using drugs and tape technology, she rapes the innocent seventeen-year-old. This trauma causes him to experience occasional debilitating flashbacks that will harm him for years to come. The boy attempts to hide the sordid affair from his father, but Jordan eventually finds out. Furious, the man confronts Emory and she is found dead the following day. Ariane Emory's last project had been the cloning of a promising young man in an attempt to recreate his abilities. An earlier attempt with the inventor of the equation that led to faster-than-light travel had been a spectacular failure. Emory was persuaded that this was due to the clone growing up in a different social environment than the original. Emory's ultimate objective was to clone herself and have her successor reliving her life as closely as humanly possible. She also created a sophisticated computer program meant to guide her replacement as soon as she reached a certain stage in her development. With Emory's unexpected death and the resulting political disruptions at Reseune and in the Union, this cloning project begins in complete secrecy.
Cyteen follows the evolution of Ariane Emory's clone, from birth to the age of her majority. Like her predecessor, she is brilliant and grows up to be a cunning and manipulative teenager. Reseune is now run by her uncles, Giraud and Denys Nye. Giraud replaced the first Emory on the Council of Nine and now leads the Expansionists. It was interesting to follow the progression of both Florian and Catlin, the second clone version of Emory's azi bodyguards. They were both terminated following the original Emory's death, and are now reborn so we can follow their training, the bond that unites them, and their relationship with young Ari when they become her personal bodyguards once more. Justin grew up with and is now in a relationship with Grant, an experimental azi created by Emory from the modified geneset of another Special. I think that the emotional and psychological anguish experienced by Justin in the presence of a child who will become the woman who raped him was particularly well-done. As a Special, Jordan Warrick could never be prosecuted and found guilty of Emory's murder. Although he claimed he was innocent, he ultimately confessed to protect Justin and Grant, and he was exiled to an isolated research facility far from Reseune. Giraud and Denys Nye control all three by threatening the life of the others should anything untoward take place. As the years go by, the Centrists would like to use Jordan Warrick's knowledge of Reseune to discredit the Expansionists and finally gain control of the Council of Nine. As you can see, there are various threads forming a great tapestry of storylines that progress over the course of nearly two decades. There are several POV characters, chief among them the original Ariane Emory, young Ari, Giraud and Denys Nye, Jordan Warrick, Justin and Grant, Florian and Catlin, Jane Strassen (a Reseune scientist who acts as substitute mother to young Ari for a number of years), Mikhail Corain (moderate leader of the Centrist Party), and Admiral Leonid Gorodin (Councillor of Defense). Some readers have complained that there are few endearing characters in that bunch and they're right. One of Cherryh's greatest accomplishments with this work was to keep you enthralled while relying on a cast of often despicable, power-hungry men and women. No small feat, that goes without saying.
Cyteen can be an extremely slow-moving novel at times. As a hard science fiction title, it's definitely a cerebral read. The complexity of the science involved compounded by the convoluted plotlines and a century-spanning timeline force you to concentrate and work more than a little. But the payoff is well worth the effort. Cyteen is a stunning, ambitious, and thought-provoking novel. The lack of ending precludes the sort of grand finale that readers had come to expect, but thankfully I won't have to wait for twenty-one years to find out what happens next. A genius at the time of her death, rejuv treatments extended Ariane Emory's lifespan and allowed her to live for more than a century. But there are hints that her life's work could not be completed in a single lifetime, and that perhaps this devious woman had planned for everything that would occur and may have messed with Justin and Grant's minds so they could help her pursue her quest for knowledge once her clone reached adulthood. This story is not over, not by a longshot. I can't wait to see what C. J. Cherryh has in store for us in Regenesis.