Dec 19 2008 6:19pm

They don’t just want a bright kid, they want her back: C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen

Cyteen is about cloning. It’s the definitive, ultimate book on the subject. The plot concerns the attempt to clone not just the body but the mind of Ariane Emory, a genius scientist and politically the most powerful person in Union.

Thematically it falls into the same space as Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, which is also about the attempt to clone a powerful dead leader and recreate the events of his life. In Levin’s book the time is the present when the book was written, 1976, and the dead leader is Adolf Hitler. The interesting thing about this comparison is that Ariane Emory isn’t really all that much nicer than Hitler—she hasn’t committed genocide, but she has caused the birth of millions of programmed azi (clone slaves) whose mindsets are such that when they become part of the general population and have children they will bring them up in a way to shape the culture as Ari Emory wants it. Besides her macro-scale hubris and irresponsibility, on a personal scale she’s horrible. She has no boundaries.

Yet the charm of the book lies in seeing her again as a very bright child who doesn’t know why her life is being manipulated, growing up, having the events of her life shaped to shape her as the first Ariane was shaped, and eventually being given direct advice (recorded before death) by her predecessor. As well as both iterations of Ari, the book centers on the much more likeable Justin Warrick, who is also a clone of his “father,” whose life is manipulated to make him different, not the same.


The novel is set almost entirely in the research institute Reseune, on the planet Cyteen, with occasional trips to the capital, Novgorod. It covers twenty years of direct time and more than a hundred years of indirect time, the manipulation of planets and cultures, slavery, war, politics, and the effects on everything of the life-extending rejuv drug that means people routinely live roughly double their natural lifespans. This is a remarkably ambitious book that succeeds on every level. This is the kind of SF I like best, set on another planet, proceeding directly from us via a huge chunk of complex future history, with characters I care about and tackling the question of what it means to be human.

This article is part of C. J. Cherryh Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Thom Wright
1. thomrit51
So is this just a re-release (although it is one of her most outstanding novels) or are is a lead up to a book about what happens after Ari's coup. I have to admit being torn it's one of those books, which had me wondering what happened tomorrow when i read the last page. but i don't know that i really want to see Ari become Ariane Emory.
Claudia Morgenstern
2. dunnettreader
Besides her macro-scale hubris and irresponsibility
I'll certainly grant you Ari1's macro-scale hubris. But I must disagree re her macro-scale irresponsibility (though irresponsibility on a more micro level is another matter entirely).

Ari1's plan for adjusting azi mindsets is a responsible choice in the sense of morally justifiable ends. As we eventually learn when Ari2 reaches maturity, Ari1 is navigating between two potential interdependent moral disasters. On the one hand, she has worked most of her life to avoid eucatastrophe scenarios that could play out if genetic diversity remained inadequate in the Union (and more broadly, human spacer) population -- hence her leadership in the production of azi classes, her support of Expansionism, the gene arks etc. On the other hand, she has to manage the moral consequences of her own creation of the huge azi population, and she is committed to preventing the perpetuation of a permanent class of economic slaves -- hence her insistence that Reseune retain the conditioning of azis in which she has already hidden initial programming which will, over generations, faciitate their long-term integration economically, politically and socially, as morally autonomous and responsible humans, into Union society as that society evolves. She accepts for herself a sort of "reverse" Pottery Barn Rule -- You make it, you're responsible for its future. We see that same commitment to protecting the azis' future in the secret actions she takes re the population of Gheanna.

What is so challenging for our acceptance of Ari1 as a moral actor, not the monster she sometimes appears -- and where the macro-scale hubris comes in with at least a suspicion of megalomania -- is her absolute conviction that she must bear this responsibility alone. That she must have the freedom to be the lone "decider" is both the personal benefit and psychological cost of having such immense power both inside and outside Reseune. But however much Ari1 is distressed by her emotional and intellectual isolation, or by the fact she must bear her responsibilities alone, she doesn't believe she has an option for sharing those responsiblities with others of her generation. She believes she alone has the capacity to fully grasp the future problems facing Union civilization, based on path dependencies of certain key variables which have already been set in motion. As she sees it, she alone has the special mix of talents to set Union on a less dangerous and more sustainable and morally acceptable course. Given what she believes about herself, those who work with her, and the future of Union and the azi, it would be moral cowardice for Ari1 not to act alone.

As readers, we're tempted to condemn Ari1's self-assessment and her rejection of the option of working with her contemporaries as megalomania, or the corrupting influence of the power she takes for granted and has exercised for a century. However, her closest contemporaries appear to share Ari1's self-assessment of her uniqueness and indispensability, given their unswerving commitment to Ari2's careful upbringing -- "they don't just want a bright kid, they want her back". And as Ari2 develops along the lines of Ari1, we increasingly come to understand how and why Ari1 saw the situation as she did and made the choices she made, even if those decisions make us extremely uncomfortable.

Ari1 could, of course, on a certain level have explained the future problems and her proposed solutions to her contemporaries, such as Giraud and Denys or Jordan. But given the unique qualities of her intelligence/personality mix, she believed herself to be condemned to a lack of vocabulary to adequately translate for others the risks and possible solutions she saw in such a way that they would be able to share her assessment of problems and work with her to further develop and implement solutions. And over the course of the novel, we come to realize that those of her contemporaries who had the intelligence and background that might have enabled them to work with her -- to grasp what she saw needed to be done and help her devise and implement solutions -- have their own profound personal limitations, and are as isolated in their own ways as Ari1 was emotionally and intellectually.

Still, if we accept the picture of Ari1's decisions that emerges over the course of the novel, the moral dilemma isn't that Ari1's ends aren't in themselves just and morally defensible. Rather, it's a question of the means Ari1 believes she's compelled and justified to adopt, especially the creation and manipulative conditioning of the three Special genius clones -- Ari2, Justin, and the Alpha azi, Grant. With the combination of nature and nurture Ari1 designs for the clones, she intends for them to become the means by which her essential work will be continued after her death. And unlike Ari1, who was so profoundly alone with the burden of her understanding and power, the three clones are designed to have each other for support. Ari2 will be able to share the lonely burdens of power and the responsibility for decisions in managing the challenges Ari1 has foreseen. Of course, Ari1's plans can't account for every contingency or foresee the behavior of every other character, especially the manner and timing of, and reactions to, her own death.

So I don't see Ari1's use of power as irresponsible because she has taken unilateral action to remake the world according to Ariane Emory. Rather, the path chosen by Ari1 at the beginning of Cyteen sets up the core "ends vs means" problem, which frames "ends vs means" dilemmas faced by the major characters throughout Cyteen.

As well as both iterations of Ari, the book centers on the much more likeable Justin Warrick, who is also a clone of his “father,” whose life is manipulated to make him different, not the same. * * * * *
This is the kind of SF I like best, set on another planet, proceeding directly from us via a huge chunk of complex future history, with characters I care about and tackling the question of what it means to be human.

Don't forget Grant, who I think is the critical character for highlighting many of the disturbing questions re Ari2 and Justin as clones. The constant questions raised about what makes an azi, what makes a CIT, are as central to "tackling the question of what it means to be human" as the matter of cloning. The azi/CIT boundaries are sometimes sharp, sometimes blurred, for both Justin and Grant as each is subjected to both random/natural and manufactured/artifical "conditioning". We get a more fully developed "hall of mirrors" effect that we glimpsed with Josh in Downbelow Station when identity, dependent on consciousness, memory, experience, may be "real" or "manufactured" -- how to tell one from another? is the "manufactured" identity any less "real"? are we the sum of our memory or experience, or is there au fond something irreducible in identity which experience works on, influences, but can't alter in its essentials?

Cherry's SF works, taken as a whole, are an ambitious exploration of the sources of behavior, identity and consciousness at both the societal and individual levels. She examines and compares a variety of societies or sub-societies, both human and alien species. Her overarching premise is that each group's existing social organization is a function of species biology, their physical environments, and the history of the group (political, economic, social, religious, technological, migrations, catastrophic episodes, etc). And that the same sort of interplay of forces operates at the level of individuals. For each of Cherryh's main characters, their identity, psychology and behavior is shown as a function of individual biology, physical environment, the social structures or culture in which the character was raised, the character's personal history, especially episodes of high stress or trauma, and the power or powerlessness of the character.

Cyteen -- and, for me, especially Justin and Grant -- is the apogee of Cherryh's examination of the sources of behavior, identity and consciousness. There are other of her novels I prefer for plot or engaging characters. But none is as fully developed as Cyteen in terms of the formative influences on both society and individuals, and the implications for what it means to be human. Each formative factor is deliberately manipulated but in different ways to manufacture different classes of azis, bring up born-men, and produce Ari2 from Ari1. The impact, for good and ill, of various manifestations of power and powerlessness -- both for individuals and groups -- is an especially important theme in Cyteen.

But for all the tracing of intricate determinants of behavior, Cherryh's societies and individual characters remain responsible for the choices they make and the consequences. It's a highly complex and richly elaborated theory of nature AND nurture AND personal responsibility. As you say, "the kind of SF I like best".
Matthew Brown
3. morven
thomrit51 @ 1:

A sequel is out in early January.
Matthew Brown
4. morven
Yes, I don't want to see Ari2 become Ariane Emory (I), either, but she can't become that person. Everyone else thinks that the project is simply to recreate her, but the project by Ari1 is to recreate herself without all the flaws of the old.

As dunnettreader says, Ari2 isn't alone, unlike her predecessor. Ari1 ensured that Ari2 would have Justin and Grant, although they were supposed to be older and with the benefit of being molded by Ari1 for longer.
Martin Wisse
5. Martin_Wisse
Ah Cyteen is my C. J. Cherryh book I could not finish. Everybody has one and that's one is mine.

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