Grandmaster C. J. Cherryh’s 1988 Cyteen is arguably the magnum opus of her Alliance-Union novels. Together with its 2009 sequel Regenesis, Cyteen gives fans their most detailed look at Union, the first system-spanning nation independent of Earth.
Ariane Emory is a Special, one of a handful of geniuses who stand out even in a polity established by the brightest of Earth’s star-faring bright. She is one of the people who have made Union what it is: a dystopic state run by interlocking self-selected oligarchies to whom the phrase “checks and balances” is a joke. It is a galactic power utterly dependent on mass-produced, mind-controlled slaves. For Emory, secure in her power as head of the research facility Reseune, life is sweet.
As her frozen corpse proves, even a sweet life can come to an unexpected, abrupt end.
Union is ill-prepared to soldier on without Emory. Happily, Emory’s own work offers a solution.
Reseune mastered the art of cloning ages ago. Cloning, genetic engineering, and conditioning are the tripod on which azi production depends. Azi are made-to-order humans, carefully conditioned to obey their Citizen masters; they are dependable and cheap. But clones don’t have to be azi. There’s no tainted azi status for those Citizens born to parents who chose to order cloned children.
The problem trying to clone Specials, however, is that clones are not exact duplicates, just artificially created identical twins. How a twin turns out depends on environment. A clone of a Special might be another Special… but it is more likely 1,to be just another garden-variety genius.
Emory had speculated that if a research team could duplicate the original’s childhood environment, nature and nurture would create a new Special. Now her hypothesis will be tested, with Emory’s own clone, Ari, as the program’s first subject.
Emory’s childhood was … unpleasant. Ari’s guardians are determined people, willing to pay any price to get their Special back, particularly when that price will be paid by someone else. The ends justify the means, as far as they are concerned: Union without Emory is unthinkable.
There’s a vital difference between the original events and people trying to recreate those events with role-playing and orchestrated calamities. Ari won’t be Emory when she grows up. But she is just as brilliant as Emory … and just as ruthless.
I don’t own a lot of Cherryh in hardcover, but I do have a first edition of this in hardcover, thanks to a Stupid Publisher Trick at Questar, who published this particular edition 2. Late 1980s Questar was kind of quirky; you may recall that they basically buried Cook’s The Dragon Never Sleeps . Perhaps drawing their example from Lord of the Rings , they chopped Cyteen into three mass market paperbacks (Cyteen: The Rebirth, Cyteen: The Betrayal and Cyteen: The Vindication ). That mean the choice was between paying $18.95 for a durable hardcover or $11.85 for three paperbacks. The best option seemed clear to me 3.
Union is a singularly unpleasant place in which to spend any amount of time. Unlike many settings that I find intensely off-putting, the issue isn’t that the author’s up is my down, and vice-versa. Cherryh goes out of her way to make it very, very clear Emory has been corrupted by power. Her habit of treating people as resources to be used according to her whims extends to all parts of her life, She will order azi euthanized as soon they stop being useful to her,; she drugs and rapes young Justin.
The same is true of her colleagues at Reseune and in Union’s government. Determined to spread Union across their part of the galaxy, and unable to produce the population needed to do this through natural means, they turned to mass-produced azi to meet their needs. Their conception of justice is that it is whatever serves their interests at the moment (because they are by definition good). Someone is found to take the blame for Emory’s death … whether or not they are actually the guilty party.
Just in case readers cannot read between the lines, Cherryh eschews focusing entirely on a ruler’s-eye-view of Union. We see what Union looks like Ari’s POV; we also see what the situation looks like to those around her, as they try to turn her into a useful tool. Justin gives us the POV of an elite boy who has the misfortune to cross Emory’s path; azi Grant reveals that even comparatively pampered azi face lives filled with insecurity and the possibility of sudden death.
Emory believes that she is working for the greater good, as do her allies and rivals within Union. She and her colleagues have also convinced themselves that the azi are only a temporary convenience. The zeal with which abolitionists are hunted down argues against this optimistic view, as does 1980’s Serpent’s Reach. Set about seven centuries after Cyteen, it shows azi are still a core part of Union-derived societies.
In a way, the planet Cyteen mirrors Union. Cyteen is only seemingly Earth-like; it has its own unique ecology, its own complex lifeforms. At first glance, Cyteen seems welcoming, particularly in contrast to airless, radiation-blasted worlds like Mars and Mercury. In fact, Cyteen has its own, more subtle hazards 4; a foolish human wandering around in shirtsleeves would be doomed.
flora reinforced with absorbed silicates and poisonous with metals and alkaloids, generating an airborne profusion of fibers carcinogenic in Terran respiratory systems even in minute doses: the plants would kill you either in minutes or in years, depending on whether you were fool enough to eat a leaf or just unlucky enough to get an unguarded breath of air. The carbon monoxide in the air was enough to do the job on its own.
Like Union, the planet is toxic. Terraforming may some day transform Cyteen into something compatible with baseline humans; it is unlikely the same will ever happen to Union.
Cyteen is available here.
1: It is implied that Reseune tried simple cloning and soon found that this was not enough to reproduce specials.
2: It seems odd that the capstone of the Alliance-Union series would not be published by DAW. But that’s what happened. It took me a few minutes of poking through the DAW site to see if Cyteen was in print to remember that it’s the Alliance-Union novel not published by DAW.
3: Especially since I had somehow convinced myself that the MMPB cost $16 in total, even though each of the three parts was just under four bucks and 3×4 almost never equals sixteen.
4: I don’t recall Alliance having the same issues with their habitable worlds as Union faces on Cyteen and Gehenna. It may be that Alliance got lucky (ignoring the whole “encounters the Compact and later on, the mri and the Regul ” thing). Or possibly that Alliance had better tool kits for living on alien worlds.