Monday, October 7, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: Cyteen (1989, Best Novel)

 Dossier: Cherryh, C.J. Cyteen [Warner, 1988]

Filetype: Novel

Executive Summary: Cyteen is set in C. J. Cherryh’s Alliance / Union Universe, a future expansionist history of humanity in the stars. The opening pages of Cyteen provides a full background of the colonization and political history of that universe and how the various factions got started. It takes all of four pages and is perfectly fascinating on its own. Then Cherryh rolls into the story and introduced Ariane Emory, an aging scientist potentially nearing the end of her life. Emory is a member of the Union governing Council of Nine and the founder of Reseune, the leading science laboratories in the universe. Emory is known as a brilliant woman (she is one of very few certified as a Special), though also a difficult woman. The reader is given all of this introduction, which Cherryh quite naturally handled far better than I am right now, and it serves to create a sense of the political and social landscape of Reseune. Cherryh reveals the Reseune plans to clone and recreate Specials so the Special brilliance is not lost when they die. There is one notable previous attempt and failure. 

When Ariane Emory is murdered early in the novel there are several major developments put into play. First, another Special at Reseune is implicated – Jordan Warrick. Warrick and Emory had a once close professional (and personal) relationship which strained. Emory, shortly before her murder, began a relationship with Jordan’s son Justin – except the relationship was not an equal one, it was a very dominant one on the part of Emory. The second major development is that the cloning program goes forward – only with a particular change. Because Reseune needed Ariane so badly, they cloned her and attempted to recreate as much of her upbringing as possible in order to bring out the exact genius that was Ariane Emory. It is a long term strategy. 

That’s the background and set up of Cyteen. Cyteen spans perhaps fifteen to twenty years and provides two major viewpoints during that time: Justin Warrick and young Ariane Emory (the clone). Justin’s storyline is that of survival, of trying to fit in at Reseune with all of the political drama and upheaval caused by Emory’s death AND by his father’s confession. Note: the reader never sees the murder occur, so what we don’t know is if Jordan Warrick told the truth with his confession. We assume not, but can be wrong. Emory’s storyline is of a young and isolated genius child growing up and figuring out her place and potential power.

Legacy: Cyteen won the 1989 Hugo Award for Best Novel and it is regarded as one of Cherryh’s best novels. Cyteen has loomed large in my reading history as it was the first novel I read from C.J. Cherryh after years of avoiding her work for no good reason that I can come up with. Cherryh’s Hugo Award win for Cyteen was her third Hugo Award, following a Short Story Hugo for “Cassandra” in 1979 and Best Novel for Downbelow Station in 1982. The most significant aspect of Cyteen may be the bolstering to Cherryh’s reputation in the genre, which has always been strong – but being a two time winner for Best Novel puts her in elite company. Cyteen remains a major novel in Cherryh’s oeuvre and is a major novel by anybody’s standard, though it doesn’t get discussed nearly as much as Downbelow Station. Cyteen may be her strongest and most accomplished novel, it is Downbelow Station which has had the longer reach and conversation. Perhaps it is because Cyteen is so tightly compacted onto the station and the politics of Union and Downbelow Station looks at Union from the outside and deals with clashing cultures, but we’re much more likely to see references to Downbelow Station than Cyteen, yet Cyteen is the novel I’d recommend first.

In Retrospect: Cyteen starts out strong, but the novel only improves at the story progresses and the reader meets Ariane Emory as an incredibly precocious teenager – one who is led, in part, by the writings the older Ariane Emory left for her clone. Cyteen is many things at once – political drama, social commentary, coming of age (for both characters, really), science fiction, a story of morality, and probably a handful of other things I can’t quite work out on the first read. 

Cherryh quietly and subtly asks questions about morality in terms of artificially created humans called “azi”. Azi have few rights and are property of Reseune. They are grown / born to do a particular job and are raised to spec and taught by “tape”, a method of deep teaching that programs (in a sense) learning and behavior. Cherryh looks at the responsibilities of those with power over azi and a bit on the morality of such a workforce. 

Cyteen is a big novel that hints at an even larger universe with references to conflicts and debates outside of the scope of the novel. It is an excellent place to begin one’s reading of C. J. Cherryh. Published thirty years ago, Cyteen holds up extraordinarily well (though the references to “tape” still make me pause). After finishing Cyteen I immediately bought more of Cherryh’s novels. That’s my ultimate recommendation – Cyteen was good enough to make me spend more money. I was completely sold on C. J. Cherryh. From one novel. From this novel.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 5/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 10/10

[Note: this dossier has been adapted from an earlier review.]

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.