Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Review - Cyteen

by C. H. Cherryh
1989 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I mentioned in my review of Downbelow Station that Cherryh is a writer who can take five hundred pages to tell a two thousand page story. Imagine how much story she can cram into a full thousand pages.

Cyteen was the Hugo winner that took me the longest to read. The density of the text is just overwhelming and it took me two weeks to finish it. The only other Hugo winners that came close were some extremely overlong, extremely dull, and extremely terrible books that you'll see a lot more griping about when the time comes.

In Cyteen (which I'll grant is one of the worst titles I've ever encountered) Ariane Emory is something of a cross between Einstein and Machiavelli. She controls all of the breeding on the planet Cyteen using a Brave New World-esque system where she chooses who will be in the top caste and who will be slaves. With this power she has dominated the politics of the world for over a hundred years and people are willing to overlook her unpleasant hobbies like raping children. She's made herself necessary to running the planet and the ruling body maintaining its power so when she is murdered those rulers enact a plan to recreate her.

They start by cloning Emory but that is not sufficient enough to recreate her genius so they proceed to manipulate the clone's life to make it run as close to the original Emory's as possible. Complications set in when the clone takes an interest in the son of the man who murdered the original.

Cherryh spends a lot of time setting up this situation and just like Downbelow Station you'll spend the first few hundred pages in a daze trying to build a picture of politics on Cyteen. It isn't until about two hundred and fifty pages in when Emory is murdered that the book really takes off. This can certainly be a problem for people (I'm not a fan of being told "Just keep going through and it gets better!" since it almost never does) but the extended set up is necessary so we know Emory before we see the attempt to duplicate her.

Despite the large backdrop Cyteen is really about the raising of children and nature versus nurture. The Emory clone is just a small (and obvious) part of this; Cherryh has a new generation of characters all growing over the course of the book and the tensions between those two poles affect them all.

One thing that may bother people is that the culture of Cyteen is not particularly nice. The planet is run by a Marxist dictatorship that breeds slaves. It gives an extra layer of tension in that I would prefer that the government of Cyteen fail. They're not only destroying a young girl's life by trying to remake her into her parent, they're doing it to prop up their own oppression.

The biggest problem is that Cherryh's prose isn't as absorbing as it could be. I find that her writing is wonderful on the plotting and the structure but its density makes it rougher to read. It isn't so much that it feels like a summary of events but rather that every event and detail is significant.

I greatly enjoyed Cyteen and I would recommend it but that first quarter of the book can be tough to get through. If you do start reading it and don't enjoy then I would recommend reading to the halfway point before giving up since it does change tone so radically.