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by C. J. Cherryh

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 27, 2019

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This was my first time reading C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen, winner of the Hugo for Best Novel in 1989. It also won a Locus, and was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Association award. It was published in hardcover on May 1, 1988. Current editions have a notation on the cover: "Complete in One Volume." That's because the first paperbacks that came out in '89 broke it up into three volumes (Betrayal, Rebirth, and Vindication) due to length. That was the publisher's decision, not Cherryh's, and she insisted all subsequent releases had to be as one book. It's hard to be sure, but if the page counts for the individual paperback titles listed at Amazon are correct, and comparing them to the length of the trade paperback, then Betrayal probably ended with Chapter 6, and Rebirth with Chapter 11. I have no idea if there had been any edits to the original.

The majority of Cherryh's SF is set within a common future history under the collective title of the Alliance-Union Universe, although groups of books also fall under sub-headings, the stories being separated by both years and sections of space. Cherryh has been very prolific, but unfortunately I haven't read many of her books, and the ones I have were more action oriented than this one. The Alliance consists of Earth and allied worlds, their primary focus being trade, but of course they have significant military forces to defend their territory and Merchanter fleets. One of the sub-sections of novels focuses on the "Company Wars," which began with her previous Hugo winner, Downbelow Station. There is a previous war mentioned in Cyteen, which had ended about 50-75 years prior, but I'm not sure if it's the same war from Downbelow Station, or a later one. Another novel referenced is Forty Thousand in Gehenna, currently available in the omnibus volume Alliance Space. Depending on which bibliographic site you use, Gehenna is considered either part of the "Company Wars," or it's grouped with Cyteen in "The Era of Rapprochement" (wikipedia). Cherryh's website has it grouped with Cyteen and its direct sequel Regenesis as the "Unionside" novels.

Union was first established on Cyteen, which had been settled predominately by scientists from Earth's Eastern Bloc countries. Its government had been expansionist, spreading its influence to other colonized worlds beyond Alliance space. Their exports were computerized tape programs, both instructional and entertainment, as well as azi (artificial zygote insemination). Azi are human in every way, only genetically designed at Reseune House, and trained by tape programs for specific purposes. The other difference between an azi and a CIT (citizen) is one of upbringing. CITs, even those gestated in and born from artificial wombs, are not designed, they directly inherit the genes of their parents, and those parents raise their children from birth. Azi are raised in communal nurseries until they are a certain age, then move to barracks to train for their specific tasks. In one sense azi are slaves, but most azi think they are superior, since they are not hampered by genetic fate or bothersome human emotions. One group of azi, specifically designed for the war effort, but not deployed until after its end, were the ones sent to Gehenna. Other political factions on Cyteen want to either minimize Reseune's monopoly on azis (the Centrists), or want to abolish the production of azis altogether (Abolitionists).

As mentioned above, this wasn't as action-oriented as I expected. Instead it is a complex examination of character, part political thriller, part murder mystery, as well as an examination of ethics, personal, societal, governmental, and corporate. In the first section, Betrayal, we meet Ariane Emory, one of the most intelligent scientists humanity had ever produced. But intellect does not always equate with ethical behavior, and Ari had alienated and antagonized many of the other scientists at Reseune, including her superiors and subordinates. The mystery begins with her death, and in keeping with the rest of the book (other than the final chapter) that event is not directly depicted, only spoken of after the fact. Was she murdered, or was it an accident? The head of Reseune House manages to extract a confession from Jordan Warrick, but since Warrick is a Special their laws prohibit a psyche-probe to get to the truth. Instead, he is exiled to a scientific station in a remote area of Cyteen's other continent. A clone of Ariane Emory is produced, a Parental Replicate, and the life of Ari2 is designed to be as close to her progenitor's as possible. They even clone her two azi security guards, whose lives had been terminated shortly after the first Ariane's death. The second section, Rebirth, begins about the time Ari2 is reunited with her azi, Florian and Caitlin, and it is then her life starts to change from that of her predecessor. She has the same intellect, the same personality, but various events cause her to take actions different than the first Ariane, although it remains unclear if that is actually fact or if she is manipulating other people's perceptions of her.

I'm not sure why I haven't read more of Cherryh. Possibly the plethora of novels, the daunting task of trying to figure out where to start, which are the more important, which will be the most satisfying. I am reading a lot more these days, but still way behind with not only current work, but also the classic authors. I rated this 4 stars on Goodreads, even though some sections warrant a higher grade. If I had read this in the separate paperbacks, Betrayal might be a little higher than 3, but Rebirth would be a solid 5, with Vindication around 4.5. Maybe another 5 if the story had been completely resolved, but I'm still not sure about the first Ariane's death, and according to a blurb about Regenesis Ari2 is still trying to get to the bottom of that mystery as well. I don't have that, but I'd like to read it very soon. Cyteen is strongly recommended, a perfect example that good SF is as much about character as it is technology, as much about the sociology of culture and personality as it is any action in the plot. It's at the heart of the never ending quest to understand what it means to be human.

Related Links:
My review of Downbelow Station
The author's website -
Her bibliography at Fantastic Fiction
Wikipedia on the Alliance-Union Universe


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C. J. Cherryh

May 1, 1988

Winner of:

Finalist for:
British SF

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