Aug 8 2011 11:15am
Designing people and societies: C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen

When I was reading the Foundation books (post), it occurred to me how seldom one sees a designed society written about with approval in SF. I think this is a lingering legacy of the Cold War — Soviet design bad, American competition good. If we see designed societies they’re rarely like Seldon’s Foundation and much more often dystopic and there to be overthrown by our heroes in the course of the plot.

C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen is an interesting example, because it’s about designing people and designing societies. And it’s set among the designers, who are themselves designed. It doesn’t view these designs with either approval or disapproval, but as if they are historical fact. It’s a book about cloning and individuality, about slavery and freedom, about historical destiny and growing up under pressure and learning to handle real power over societies. It’s about mindbuilding and society-building, and it works in a way very like Asimov’s psychohistory, by maniupulating people and trends. It’s a book I keep coming back to because it has so much in it, it remains rich and thought provoking even after I’ve read it countless times. At heart it is a character story, it’s an investigation of what it’s like to be, and to become, and to create, someone with the fate of worlds in their hands.

Union is a designed society in the future, an interstellar society with one planet and a lot of spacestations. It’s a democratic society that has a different model of the way voting works, a society where elections matter and one with the rule of law, but when you see it close up all these legal protections don’t count for much when powerful people don’t want them to. And it’s a society that has, in addition to citizens, inhabitants who are not citizens, “azi” — who are clones with designed personalities, and something quite similar to manumittable slaves.

Cherryh chose to show us Union society first from outside in Downbelow Station, (post) (1982) where they are the implacable enemy. I didn’t want to read Cyteen when it was first published because I didn’t want to spend that much time in Union. It becomes clear that Alliance don’t understand Union. Close up it’s... differently claustrophobic. Paradoxically, it’s both better and worse than it seemed from outside. It has democratic institutions and safeguards — elections matter desperately, though electorates are by occupation and people have different numbers of votes, as in Shute’s In The Wet. This is a society only two hundred and fifty years old, and that two hundred and fifty years represents only two generations, because they have Rejuv, a drug that keeps people biologically forty for about a hundred years. If you were an ordinary CIT in Union, your life would be much nicer and more free than I would have imagined. But for an azi or somebody who isn’t ordinary, it’s much worse.

Ariane Emory is one of the architects of Union, one of the designers of personality and society, and we see her from inside and out, as manipulator and as manipulated. The bulk of the book is about getting her back, producing a child who is not just a genetic replica but a psychogenetic replica. Ariane Emory was a genius who worked at designing people and societies and who served as Councillor for Science, politically the most powerful of the nine most powerful people in Union. She’s so intelligent and so powerful she forgets that she has limits. But she knows she’s dying, and she sets things up for her replica. She arranges for them to do to her replica the things that shaped her — the neglectful carping mother who dies when she is seven, the guardianship of an uncle who is very strange. They don’t go so far as to replicate the abuse, for which the second Ari is grateful. Ari II is tested and manipulated and shaped into being what they want her to be, until by the end of the book she is so much her predecessor that she would do the same.

The replication of Ari II is explicitly compared to what has been done to society. On the one hand there’s the overt setting up of Union and the different electorates and all of that. On the other, there’s the covert work. Azi are an economic requirement — they needed people fast, they cloned them and gave them their personalities via “tape from the cradle” — azi are trustworthy and competent and have skills deep down, but they are permanent minors (until and unless emancipated) and they (or rather their contracts, which amounts to the same thing) are sold entirely without any input from them. Tape has given them their skills, but also their morality and their priorities. And Ari I has set up worms — self programming replications which they will teach to their children — in the programming of the azi, which will shape society in the directions she thinks important. Ari I says in the notes she leaves for her successor that Ari II’s experience of discovering what has been done to her will help her realise how Union would react if it discovers too soon what she has done.

Cyteen is a book that covers a great deal of time and space. It also leaves you to make up your own mind about Ariane Emory’s manipulation of society. Ari I is certainly shown as a predator, and as somebody who believes that she is doing terrible things for what she sees as valuable ends. It says on the cover that she is murdered and replicated, and many readers spend the early part of the book hating her and longing for somebody to murder her already. It’s a tribute to Cherryh’s writing that many of those same readers go down the same path as her replicate and would agree at the end that getting her back is a priority.

As for society, if you accept her reasoning — that humanity will become small bands spread out across an endless plain of space mired in endless war or predation unless society finds a better way to replicate itself, then it’s possible to admire what she has done. If you think that a society that needs to do this isn’t worth saving, then you can keep hating her. (There’s a recent sequel to Cyteen, Regenesis (2009). Unfortunately, the interesting issues of Cyteen cannot be addressed in a book set directly afterwards and covering only a few months.) This manipulation of society by affecting the personalities of segments of the population so that the whole population will react the way you want it to is very like psychohistory. It’s also explicitly undermined — we learn not only from Gehenna but from the azi points of view that we see that the designers (even Ari) aren’t as good as they think they are at designing personalities. We learn from Grant that the azi whisper about ways to be free, and we keep seeing Justin fixing design problems.

We also know, because Cherryh had written books set later in the history of this universe, that it doesn’t ultimately work. Ari I talks about azi as ideally a one generation proposition for opening up frontiers, and we see societies where azi are institutions. In Cyteen azi do not always get rejuv, and in later books we see them killed off at forty. Union does last, but not in the way she would have wanted. Cherryh believes in history and unintended consequences.

I’ve probably read Cyteen forty times, but it always grabs me and won’t let go, and I always see more in it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. corig123
I agree this is a great book - Cherryh's easily my favorite author. I'm always impressed about how she can write about a whole planet or civilization, but somehow get you caring about every single one of them.
Skip Ives
2. Skip
This is one of my favorite books, I've read it many times as well. Cherryh always makes you think, that is why you can keep comong back to them, year after year. I just wish it was available as an ebook.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Cherryh is putting a lot of her backlist online as e-books you can buy directly from her. I don't know if she has plans for Cyteen, but it might be worth checking.
4. cranscape
I read this a while back based on the rec of a small town librarian. I was staying at my parents while I was between jobs at the time and the scifi section of the library seemed to have gone without much use. The librarian had an odd look to her face when I agreed to read it based on her rec and an even better one when I returned it and said I liked it. Like I had passed a test. :)

Cherryh has ruined me for a lot of scifi. I think Heavy Time/Hellburner/Downbelow Station/Cyteen/Forty Thousand in Gehenna read together is a near perfect experience. I love the micro/macro implications to human development and that she stuck with the universe long enough for us as readers to see the payoff for a lot of it. The need to keep the human identity even as people expand out into space. Realizing if you don't make a plan perhaps someday a branch of the human race might come back generations later as alien to you as you are to them. In earlier books she wrote about the disconnect people on the rim already had to the politics Earth. How in even that short time there was a fracturing of loyalties forming. Multiply that across bigger distances and longer amounts of time and you get an Earth that is irrelevant to most people. Union had that as an example to work against. As bad as their plans were it could make sense in an antiseptic way.

Cherryh has a great knack of dealing with those bigger scope things while also having characters with almost suffocatingly personal POVs. It's an odd combination that works well in tandem I think. You get the super personal with the scientific long con going on as well.
Nick Eden
5. NickPheas
Great book, and one I really should re-read. I wasn't aware of the sequel, and your review makes me want to avoid it.
There seems to be a Cherryh pattern to seeming to end the book half way through the story, but actually finishing all that's important. At the end of Cyteen Ari has won. Everything else is just detail, but short of a space whale destroying the lab, it is hers, Ari is back.
The same was true of Finity's End, where the kid wins acceptance, and in a lesser writer could have gone on to have all kinds of Heinlein style adventures as part of the crew. But we don't need CJC to tell us those stories, she's already given us all the tools we need to do so.
6. goljerp
NickPheas: Don't avoid _Regenesis_; if you do, the big publishing companies will take that as an indication that readers want less Cherryh and more sparkly vampires. Well, they probably already think that. I think Regenesis is a good book, but it's fair to say that it does not have the same broad scope as Cyteen. Still, unless you would really hate to have your favorite theory of who killed Ari I contradicted, I think it's worth it.

: My favorite theory: Ari I did it, on the spur of the moment. (Yes, I mean suicide). She knew her rejuv was failing, and in the moment that Jordan stormed out, Ari realized that her death *at that moment* would be the perfect way to ensure Ari II would have a properly-manipulated Justin when she needed him.
Kate Martin
7. julian
I (at 38) read this for the first time a few weeks ago. I'm still digesting. And there's lots /to/ digest. Since I read it in large part because of Jo's occasional mentions of it on LJ, I'd like to thank her for that.

Cherryh wasn't someone I read at all when I was younger, and I've really been loving approaching her now.
Maiane Bakroeva
8. Isilel
I love Cyteen! Apart from very interesting society-building/scientific ideas, very intriguing plot and great writing it offers 2 extremely rare accomplishments: genuinely alien PoVs (of azi) and very believable PoVs of child genius(es). Cyteen is a severely underrated masterpiece.

In fact, IMHO Cherryh and Vinge are the only SF authors that have ever managed to satisfyingly depict alien psychology as something distinct and different from human one, rather than fall back on "too alien to understand" or "human culture in a rubber suit" mainstays.
Which is kinda sad, given the preponderance of aliens in science fiction...
Anne D
9. cheyinka

That's an interesting theory for Ari I's death! My favorite was always - and is still, even after reading _Regenesis_ - that it really was an accident. She had planned her life so carefully, and yet her death came unexpectedly and not in the way she planned. (I still like this theory after reading _Regenesis_ simply because the reveal was *so* unsatisfying, and it's not like it'd be the first time that a Cherryh character was wrong or lying or the subject of tape.)
10. Sean Broadley
I think Cyteen is the pinaccle of Cherryh's work.

Cherryh's books are all about individuals fighting against societies. Unlike a lot of early (and bad) science fiction, she shows that this isn't a fight you can win, because a society is a behemoth that will steamroller you. And yet her heroes often do win - or win enough - because they gain an inch and that's all they need.

It's interesting to go back to Brothers of Earth (Cherryh's first book, from 1976) which is set the end of the Union/Alliance war many centuries later. There you see that same things happening - individuals fighting to change a society and that immense inertia of society and history fighting back.

And when her protagonists do effect major social change it's not because they're Hari Seldon plotting it all out - instead they're Pyanfar Chanur or Signy Mallory surfing the avalance because otherwise they'll end up under it.

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