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.


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