06 October 2012


Complete in one volume!!

Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh
1989 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: Public Library
680 Pages

I haven’t ever done this before but I’m going to defer trying to write an intriguing intro to Cyteen’s plot to the pros.  In this case, there is actually a wiki for the universe in which Cyteen exists.

“The murder of brilliant researcher and political power Ariane Emory, one of fourteen Specials or Union-certified geniuses, has staggering consequences for her constituency and for all of Reseune, as well as for her closest family and friends. As the news generates a shockwave across Union space, Emory's family and colleagues implement her final experiment -- the attempted recreation of her abilities by raising her clone successor in an environment as closely matching her life as possible.”

I am alternately extremely happy to write this (positive) review, because I had such poor reading of Downbelow Station, and also very nervous because there is just no way that I have the capability to do Cyteen any justice.

Who killed Ariane Emory?!
While the book is a long one – there is no doubt about that – the format of several chapters which are broken up into shorter parts and each chapter being separated by excerpts from reports or interviews or minder transcripts goes a long, long way to making this book as readable as possible.  It was really easy to pick up Cyteen and just read a page or two (which would cover one of those parts of a chapter, if I found myself with a few extra minutes before leaving for work, and then being able to just put it back down fairly easily.  Especially toward the end, this was no longer a problem as I had a hard time putting it down at all, but it was good because I didn’t feel forced to read for hours every time I picked it up.  I think it was also a contributing factor, apart from the story itself that made Cyteen one of those books that completely invades your personal life.

Cyteen nearly covers the entire spectrum not only of human experience, but also of SF themes.  Really, this book should be too much for one person to handle, but unlike my experience of Downbelow Station, the interplay of probably a thousand different themes in Cyteen made it that much more compelling.  What is most gripping is that woven throughout all those crazy intense themes of cloning, slavery, psychology, genetics, philosophy, politics, neurology the matter of who killed Ariane Emory? manages to infect just about everything good or bad or stupid or silly or sexy in the book with a terrible a sense of foreboding.  You’re never allowed to relax and It’s.  Just.  Amazing.

I'm a sucker for maps.  Even lazy maps.  Even unnecessary maps.

What is this book about?
The copy from the back cover calls Cyteen a “murder mystery”.  This misled me quite a bit.  In fact, relatively early in the novel Ariane Emory is killed but rather than leading to a protracted search, the killer is identified early and though a cloud of mystery hangs about for the remainder of the novel, no one ever resumes or reexamines the case.  This was really exciting to me.  It’s obvious that the killer’s guilt is suspect from the beginning and that is never cleared up, and I believe in Regenesis, the real killer is actually exposed (someone correct me if I’m wrong here), so Cherryh clearly has the long-view in mind – we just haven’t gotten there yet.  Still, it was significant to me that there was no attempt to broach the subject in Cyteen itself.  Well, it does come up actually, but again it is crazily significant that we never find out the conclusion of the council’s interrogation of Justin Warrick.  What was more important was his experience there.

So, we aren’t necessarily so concerned with whodunit, but where does that leave us?  Well, as I said there are literally TONS of ridiculously complex topics brought up throughout, but it was telling that in the very last excerpt from archives, Ariane uses a “magic word”.

B/1: Ari senior has a message.
Stand by.
Ari, this is Ari senior.
You’ve asked about power.
That’s a magic word, sweet.  Are you alone?
AE2: Yes.
Pg 613

I was literally rubbing my palms together and laughing maniacally after reading this.  It was one of those moments when you stop reading in the middle of a page and resituate yourself and just take a couple deep breaths, because you know shit is gonna get REAL.

I’m not really going to opine on her treatment of power or any of her themes though, other than to say that whatever your opinion of her prose, characters or her worldview, it is delivered in a way that is nuanced to the extreme.  Her treatment of themes like slavery, genetics or space colonization and so many others, topics of unimaginable scope, become incredibly personal and tangible in Cyteen.  It is a book that is psychologically strenuous, philosophically draining and yet, an absolutely beautiful thing to behold.

Wow, you know what?  I wasn’t thinking of it this way while reading it, but now that I’ve written this review, I think Cyteen might be right up there with U.K. LeGuin’s Hugo winner, The Left Hand of Darkness for me.  That should say a lot.

Honestly, the first 150-or-so pages are a little slow out of the gate.  I can see why a lot of people struggle to finish it.  Beyond that point, Cyteen is incredibly rewarding and dramatic and just great.  You might want to make sure you are physically and emotionally prepared for this book before you dive in, but once you do, like LeGuin’s Hugo masterpieces, Cyteen is something of a master-class in SF literature.


Universe 5/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 5/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5
Characters 5/5

Overall 25/25 (Uh-oh, this is going to cause a major shake-up in the Paragons list!)

The roll of the die…
I should take some time here to layout my schedule since, even though I finally finished Cyteen, it put me a little behind and then this week was a really bad reading week for me.  Still, I’ve got a couple books in the pipeline and I’m not too concerned about getting back on track.  I will have to focus a little over the next week or so though.  There are also only two books left in the 80’s so just one roll of the die allowed me to determine a couple books ahead.

What should have been:

September 22nd
Enders Game
September 29th
Speaker for the Dead
In progress
October 6th
Startide Rising
In progress
October 13th
The Snow Queen
Should’ve been starting tomorrow!
October 20th
The Uplift War

You can see I have some work to do…


  1. I incline towards devil's advocacy, and so if I were to read Cyteen again, I'd be looking for ways to ding it down from a perfect score.

    Having said that, it was one of the more intellectually stimulating and (in the end) enjoyable experiences I've ever had with a sff novel. I totally believe it deserves to stand pretty dang close to the best of them.

    I think my main criticism of Cherryh generally is that her LONG internal monologues seem to get a bit repetitive after a while, even though she drops little new bits into them with each new go-round. But Cyteen is probably still in my top five sci-fi novel experiences.

    1. Also, I found Regenesis equally enjoyable. Perhaps not quite as ambitious, but with more engaging protagonists.

    2. You know actually, I scored Cyteen immediately after finishing and it wasn't perfect. It was pretty close, but as I was writing the review today and thinking a little more about it, I realized how much I had enjoyed it. Initially it was 'dinged' for Justin and Grant. Especially at first, but also throughout, they could be a little hard to relate to. When Grant is fleeing and so scared and incapable of anything, it was a little too early to understand the genesis of all those really strange emotions. After all I decided for a couple of guys who've had some serious and seriously weird deep tape sessions, they ought to be a little strange. They didn't even always understand themselves. I would have liked to have been privy to that before that escape scene in the beginning. Surely there were some things that weren't the greatest, but despite those moments or issues, as you say it was STILL one of the more intellectually stimulating Hugo's I've gone through so far. I feel justified giving it a '25'. Now I'm just nervous about how to reorganize my Paragons list...

      Also that's good to know about Regenesis. I'll be anxious to start that one at some point.

  2. Wow, very interesting indeed. Downbelow Station was for me also quite average, and contributed much toward my avoidance - or rather continuous postponements - of reading Cyteen. Now I'm actually very motivated to do so, but sadly my whole library is currently in storage, waiting for our imminent move out of South Africa in November. Which means I won't be able to get to Cyteen until much later this year, or even only 2013. At least now it's something I look forward to with great anticipation.

    Cherryh is the one "classical" sf author I haven't read much, but that seems to be an inexcusable oversight.

    Good luck with The Snow Queen. It is also a hefty read (pages-wise).

    1. I know, as much as I don't want to admit it, I did not go into Cyteen with an open mind. I was totally ready to downplay anything I liked. Maybe it was thanks to its length that it had time to turn me around. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

      Leaving SA huh? Good luck with the move and I hope you left yourself enough to read in the meantime!

    2. Yeh, early retirement :) Returning to my wife's roots, on the family farm in Namibia. I sure do hope there will be some time to still read sf.

      I've set aside a few books to read for this in limbo phase (I'm literary in between houses, countries), but these have since grown to two additional boxes to be packed!

    3. Early retirement! I guess you'll have plenty of time to finish Cyteen ;-) Wow, retiring to the family farm. That sounds really cool.


  3. I've only read "Cyteen" and "Downbelow Station" by Cherryh, too. I think I more-or-less liked "Downbelow Station", though it wasn't very memorable for me (I read it years ago). "Cyteen", though, I loved. I don't think there are very many SF novels that deal so well with so many different themes. On a smaller scale, I particularly remember liking how the characters didn't just get over traumatic experiences in a matter of days or weeks, like many fictional characters do. The things they experience continue to shape them for the rest of their lives.

    1. That's a really good point. There is a real sense of emotional damage that sticks around and you have to watch them relive their traumas throughout the entire book. I think that was what finally turned me around to Justin's character - watching him slowly, slowly recover.

  4. This is easily one of the best novels I've ever read. I particularly liked the nuanced treatment of the Azi. Try explaining Azi to someone in one sentence. It's impossible. Also, Ari becomes such a wonderfully compelling character as the book goes on (she's even better in Regenesis).

    Oh, and the real killer is revealed in Regenesis, but it's not a game-changer as far as Ari 2's worldview or anything like that, which is amazing.

    1. Thanks for confirming that. I loved not only the Azi but also the tape learning. So cool.

      It's hard to believe Azi gets better! Ahhh!


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