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Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The planet Cyteen was always important in C. J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe. It was the capital of Union, the source of the azi, cloned humans who were so important to Union's labor force and were viewed with attitudes ranging from ill-ease to outright disgust and horror by the people of Alliance. However, readers of the early Alliance-Union books generally saw Cyteen at a remove, through the effects its actions had upon people and planets far distant. The closest we came to actually seeing Cyteen was the brief scene at the beginning of 40,000 in Gehenna in which Jin the azi is being prepped for travel and recalls the farm on which he worked.

In this eponymous novel the world of Cyteen moves front and center, becoming the setting of a novel in which biotechnology, psychology, and political intrigue weave an intricate web around secrets of such explosive political power that they could topple governments, even change the course of human history in disastrous ways. As suggested by the title, all the action takes place on the world of Cyteen, and events on other worlds and stations are only seen through the filters of news reports and the like. Even Fargone, the station that is the locus of some critical elements of the experiment at the heart of the story, is seen only at a remove, with no actual scenes taking place on it, even when point of view characters such as Jane Strassen relocate there.

In fact, almost all of the story's major action takes place within the famous laboratory complex of Reseune, almost a city in itself. Alliance personnel speak of Cyteen as the world upon which azi are made, but Unioners speak of Reseune as the locus of azi development. Although Reseune has licensed the processes of azi production and birth labs can be found on almost any colony world where Union needs a rapidly growing population but most of the adult women are professionals who will be reluctant to take time away from their work to gestate and raise children, the processes of developing new azi subtypes and the deepteach tapes by which azi are brought up in the absence of regular family structures are kept firmly under Reseune's control (which may account for why the society of Serpent's Reach, the only earlier novel that dealt extensively with azi, was so different from what we see in this novel -- they moved away from the value systems that shaped Reseune to something very much like Union was accused of holding by many in Alliance who saw only wartime extremes).

And in many ways, the azi and their function in the society of Union are at the heart of the novel, even if the primary plot is about the murder of leading citizen Ariane Emory and her re-creation through the scientifically manipulated upbringing of her clone. The azi are not citizens, they have limited rights and their labor power belongs to the holders of their contracts, yet the contract system is not simply a cover for slavery. One of the most striking things we see right away is the complete absence of any of the brutalities that have typically been associated with various forms of slavery and involuntary servitude throughout history. Not only are there no whips and chains, but Supervisors are not even allowed to raise their voices in anger at an azi who has not met expectations. All correction is done in as positive a way as possible, using techniques such as redirection to extinguish unwelcome behaviors and replace them with more desirable ones.

Part of it may of course be nothing more than the more sophisticated, scientific understanding of the human mind replacing more traditional models of obedience vs. defiance. The deepteach tape system, by which azi are surrounded from birth by warm, positive talk that becomes self-talk and which forms their minds in logical, predictable ways may also be a major factor, since it produces a more malleable personality that is heavily oriented to gaining approval from authority as a means of personal satisfaction. Thus there isn't the need to constantly control incipient resistance, but instead to protect a psyche that is generally regarded as more fragile (albeit more logical) than that of a naturally raised person. In fact, many of the legal and social disabilities experienced by azi are more comparable to those of minor children than to those of traditional subject peoples.

And much as children grow up to assume adult responsibilities, there is an assumption that a significant proportion of the azi will ultimately develop into full citizenship and raise families of their own. So much so that the long-term generational effects of azi psychesets upon the society is a major concern of Reseune's tape developers, and one notable plot thread is Justin Warrick's struggle to show that his deep-level structure that makes good work intrinsically rewarding for the azi doing it will not have destructive effects upon the society as much as thirty generations down the line. So it's quite possible that here we have the central difference between the role of azi in Union society and that of slaves in most historical societies -- each azi is not merely a body to be exploited for labor power in the short term, but a long-term investment in the future of the society as a whole.

But even with this system that is by and large free of the grossest abuses of historical systems of involuntary servitude, there are many in Union society who are sufficiently uneasy about it that they want an end put to it, not at some unspecified time in the future that can be indefinitely postponed by those who find it beneficial to themselves to have a perpetual servant class, but on a definite timetable as short as can possibly be made and ensure that vulnerable persons are not tossed out to fend for themselves without the psychological and social resources to become self-supporting citizens. Throughout the book the Abolitionists, who want to terminate azi production and close the birth labs (except, presumably, as medical support for those women for whom a body birth is either not possible or extremely dangerous to mother, child, or both), are a political force that the major characters must continually contend with.

Needless to say, any political movement, no matter how noble in its original intents, is going to inevitably attract a lunatic fringe. And the Abolitionists are no exceptions. Some of the extremists may genuinely believe that the azi system is such an abomination against human dignity that any form of toleration of it is cooperation with evil and violence is the only morally legitimate response to the government's unwillingness to immediately dismantle it. But there are plenty who give every sign of regarding violence as a way of concentrating power more quickly to themselves, of having rubber ethics that regards the ends as justifying the means, and who are willing to terribly hurt the very people they are supposed to be helping.

But they aren't the only people who are up to no good, and sometimes it seems like all hats are gray in low enough light. That's one of the great strengths of this novel -- there aren't neat, tidy divisions between good guys and bad guys. The original Ariane Emory comes off pretty nastily in the first several chapters, but as we learn later from her notes, she survived some pretty serious abuses at the hands of her guardian during key parts of her early development, abuses that precipitated her move to adult status and a household of her own at a surprisingly early age. So we're left wondering if the things she was doing to Justin in those first chapters which we took to be willful villainy may well have been her attempts to make his psyche stronger and reshape it away from the flaws in his father's character -- especially given that the second Ari, whose guardian's flaws are in different parts of his character and who moves out earlier and over a far more minor issue, shows far more signs of compassion alongside the ruthlessness, and makes a special effort to heal the damage of her Senior's interrupted Intervention on Justin. Similarly, many of the other characters are doing things that potentially could be seen as justifiable, particularly as the situation becomes progressively more fraught, yet have disastrous consequences -- but other characters who hold back from acting on what they thought were good moral grounds instead have things blow up in their faces.

Another notable strength of this novel is the way in which it rewards re-reading. It's fairly easy to get the major threads of the plot -- Ariane Emory's death and re-creation, Justin's struggle to come into his own while living under the shadow of his father Jordan's being regarded as Emory's killer, etc. -- in even a relatively cursory reading. But a second and third reading will tease out more subtle nuances in the way characters relate to one another. For instance, I never realized that Jordan and Justin are both gay the first time I read the novel, and had simply assumed their relationships with their respective azi Paul and Grant were purely platonic because there were no overtly erotic interactions between them, unlike the pretty blatant hooking-up behaviors between the heterosexual couples. But after I read that interpretation of their characters in an essay, reading the novel a second time allowed me to see the subtle clues in the way they related to one another which made it clear that they were relating as couples rather than simply as colleagues and roommates. In my first reading I also completely missed Denys Nye's psychological dependency upon his brother Giraud and how it distorted both men's psyches, not to mention the way in which both of them related to Ari II.

It's also interesting to see how well the novel has or has not worn over the two decades since it was originally published. When I first read it, right after it came out, I really loved the vision of future information technology, of a working library system for electronic books and other digital media. But now that I re-read it twenty-plus years later, the places where Primary World technology has raced ahead of it keep giving me a sense of yesterday's tomorrow that are ever so slightly jarring to my suspension of disbelief. For instance, their computer technology seems to be completely centered around desktop terminals and workstations, with little or no evidence of anything comparable to laptops or handhelds, not to mention the minimal integration with the telecommunications system. The scene in the climax in which Justin is frantically searching for a public payphone in order to get in contact with Ari's Security was quite dramatic when I read it, since at that time being in a strange city still meant being dependent upon public phones -- but now as I re-read it, it seems strange that he shouldn't have some kind of communications device on his person, some future development of the cellphones that have become so ubiquitous in the past decade that even poor people have their own and the telcos are seriously talking about eliminating not only pay phones, but non-digital landline telephone service.

Yet the writing is so strong that it's easy to forgive even those flaws, those failures of foresight, and want to re-read it yet another time. Particularly given the way in which it dovetails so tightly with 40,000 in Gehenna, and particularly now that the sequel Regenesis has been published, it's a book that really deserves its status as a major work.

Review posted September 2, 2010.

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