Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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by CJ Cherryh

A book review by Steven Wu
April 06, 2005

Rating: 6 (of 10)

Unfortunately, any review of CJ Cherryh's Cyteen has to begin with a huge spoiler that reveals a crucial plot twist that only occurs about a hundred pages into the book. Stop now if you don't want to read about it.

Cyteen takes place primarily in a scientific community known as Reseune, whose essentially totalitarian government is headed by the powerful but somewhat coldhearted Ariane ("Ari") Emory. Reseune is famous for two things. First, it is the producer of "tapes" (one of the few signs of how old this novel is), which are basically audiovisual cassettes that can reprogram people's minds. (Need to fly a helicopter? Listen to a tape.) Second, it produces human beings from raw genetic material, including a special subclass of humans known as "azis" (because they're classified from A--the smartest and most human like--to Z--the most menial and robotic). What distinguishes azis from humans is not their genetic material, which is the same, but rather the fact that azis are given tapes from birth, whereas humans are allowed to develop an idiosyncratic personality before being subjected to tapes.

Ari Emory is something of a cold fish, and highly unpopular with certain groups. In particular, she has a running feud with Jordan Warwick, a prominent Resune scientist who is an expert on tapes and other psychological messing about. Perhaps because of this feud, Ari decides to (essentially) sexually abuse Jordan's teenage son, Justin, who happens to be a perfect clone of his father. Justin is permanently traumatized, immediately falling into a wreck around any other person beside his close friend Grant, an azi whom his father raised as a son, and more importantly as a human being.

The crucial event that really gets this novel going is a murder: Resune police discover Ari's dead, frozen body, and Jordan is immediately accused and convicted of the crime. Jordan is sent away, leaving Justin (and Grant) alone in Resune. The Resune administrators, desperate to recover the power that Ari had so effortlessly held in the larger political system, come up with a plan: they're going to clone Ari, then raise the clone exactly as Ari had been raised, in a long-term project that will eventually bring Ari back.

Cyteen starts off very badly. It opens with an incredibly hasty survey of several hundred years of history, then launches into an extremely detailed political debate that is utterly impenetrable. It's not just that names get thrown around without any signal as to their actual importance. Cherryh also mixes in a ton of plot points that are crucial for understanding later events--but the important stuff is mixed in so thoroughly with unimportant faux politicking that it's impossible for a reader to separate the two.

Several of Cyteen's problems continue to the end. Most importantly, there is a considerable amount of flabbiness in the novel--unnecessarily long internal monologues; pointless, circular dialogues; plot twists that in hindsight are unnecessary and confusing. There is also Cherryh's abominable writing style, which includes such unlovely sentences as, "A two-hour lunch and consideration of the dispensation of the rest of the Science permissions afterward, a tedious long list of permissions which, in the way of a good many things in a government which had started small and cozy and grown into an administrative monster within a single lifespan, the executive Nine were supposed to clear, but which in fact had devolved to the Secretarial level and which had become routine approval." And there is Cherryh's annoying habit of jumping between points of view from paragraph to paragraph, an undisciplined and aggravating habit.

But there are some things that do improve. The turning point isn't Ari's murder; it's the rebirth of Ari as a baby being raised in a completely controlled environment. At once, two wonderful ideas materialize out of a messy and boring introduction. The first is the psychological angst experienced by a young woman who at some point realizes that she is in fact merely the replica of somebody who has already lived and who has done both great and abominable things. The second is the turmoil of a victim--Justin Warrick--who is forced to confront a person who looks exactly like his attacker--who is, indeed, essentially being raised to be his attacker--but who is still innocent of any actual assault against him. (But let me clarify: she's not an innocent in at least one sense, as a bizarre and lovingly described prepubescent sex party demonstrates.) The power of these two ideas is such that they give the second half of the novel considerable kick, notwithstanding Cherryh's flabby plotting and awful prose. Ari and Justin meet early and often--Reseune isn't that big--and each of their meetings is suffused with tension and haunted by the ghost of the old Ariane Emory.

And then everything is marred by what can only be described as an excruciatingly bad ending, a hasty and underdeveloped climax that concludes so abruptly that I was convinced I had a bad copy of the novel. Never mind the fact that crucial plot threads are left unresolved--like the real explanation behind Ari's death, or the resolution of Justin's relationship with Ari 2, or Grant's development into a full human being, or Justin's relationship with his father. What is so bad about the ending is that a major character suddenly becomes the Big Bad Guy, for no reason whatsoever; there's a big explosion (literally); and before you can even make sense of this sudden, violent interruption into what had been a pretty quiet story, Cherryh brings the curtains down. I don't care how much you claim to like the book. The ending is completely indefensible.

The beginning, ending, and swaths of the middle notwithstanding, Cyteen is a pretty decent science fiction novel. That may seem a little underhanded. It's meant to be. The novel is long-winded and undisciplined; the prose is both purple and juvenile; and there is far too much extraneous material in here. (Why didn't she just set this in a simpler universe, rather than force it into her ongoing future history?). But the two key ideas that emerge with Ari 2 are too powerful to be overcome by the rest of the book, though Cherryh certainly seems to try.

Copyright © 2005 Steven Wu

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