So, it’s about a teenage cyborg, right?…
Unbelievably, this is not the case. Instead, Cyteen (by CJ Cherryh) is about a few individuals at the heart of a community of exceptional scientists (located on the eponymous planet). Foremost amongst these scientists is Ariane Emory.
Some context: The power centre on Cyteen is Reseune (a research facility), of which Ariane is the head. Ariane is also one of a small number “specials” (individuals of such intelligence that they have a sort of diplomatic immunity due to their importance to the state) and one of the members of the Council of Nine that leads Union (one of the three power blocs of humanity along with the primarily space-faring merchanter Alliance and old Earth). So, she’s a hot shot.
In the wider context of Union there is much political tussling between a group that wants to continue humanity’s expansion amongst the stars (a position favoured by Ariane) and another that wants to sit tight and consolidate what it’s got. There’s quite a lot of time spent on this politicking side of things early in the novel (along with supporting infodumps). It’s not thrilling and (not being from the 25th century) I found the concerns of the two groups a bit hard to grokk. The upshot of this is that the novel takes a while to get into. Annoyingly, this politicking doesn’t have much relevance to the main plot strands in the book, only occasionally providing some external impetus for plot development or background for characterisation.
Similar tussling happens on Reseune, as individuals, all master psychologists, intrigue and manipulate around each other. At the centre of this web is Ariane, who, in a power play against her main rival, rapes (!) his son. This act is what drives the narrative of the book. Shortly after this Ariane ends up mysteriously dead, and a new Ariane (Ariane2), cloned and brought up in an environment as close to that of Ariane1 as possible, is born and raised to replace her. Most of the book is about Ariane2 growing up (and Cherryh does an excellent job of capturing this development in the character’s changing voice) in the vacuum left by her predecessor, the relationships that she forms, and her growing awareness of Ariane1’s goals and motivations. All of this, the relationship building and character development side of things, is really excellent.
One particularly key relationship is between Ariane2 and her two bodyguards (clones of Ariane1’s), Florian and Caitlin. They are all the same age, meet as children, and grow up together as close as can be. While Ariane2 is taught about genetics and social engineering, they are taught how to survive against armed adult opponents while blindfolded in trapped rooms. When a teenage Ariane2 decides that she needs to have sex for the first time, she goes to Florian. She finds the next day that in the wake of that experience Florian and Catlin, too, had to give sex a go. Another key relationship is between Ariane2 and Justin, the 17 year-old raped by Ariane1, who now suffers from PTSD. The fact of this rape is kept secret from Ariane2, who finds herself fascinated by this odd young man who goes out of his way to avoid her.
There are two important technologies in the book: cloning and the use of tape. Tape is a high-speed subliminal method for teaching and psychological adjustment. Together, these technologies allow the creation of “azi” — genetically engineered humans hothoused to create a very specific skill set (e.g., soldier). Florian, Catlin, as well as Justin’s lover (Grant), are all azi. The status of these azi is great food for thought for the reader. Due to their unnatural upbringing azi are very psychologically vulnerable outside of the roles they’ve been brought up for and need tape to recalibrate themselves. They are somewhat like the stereotype of the gifted autistic person — hyper capable within a narrow skillset but much less capable in the emotionally complex social world. Some (alphas) are highly intelligent and capable of becoming citizens; others are dull slaves.
There’s no great plot to speak of — the death of Ariane1, which seems as though it should send the plot-train along whodunit rails, remains unsolved. Characters interact and develop, the use of cloning and tape is explored, and things ultimately end in an odd little scene of action and explosions that seems very out of key with the rest of the book. The lack of an exciting plot does not stop it from being a very good and very readable (once you get into it) novel. It could have done with a good edit (it’s very long and suffers from a bit of flab), but there’s a reason it won the Nebula and the Hugo. Recommended (7.5/10)