Author: CJ Cherryh
Details: (c) 1988 CJ CJ Cherryh; Pub 1995 Warner Books; ISBN 0-446-67127-4
Verdict: Cyteen does a marvellous job of worldbuilding and is very exciting.
Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: Birthday present from lethargic_man
I sat for four hours this morning finishing Cyteen, and that's unusual for me these days; I generally have discipline about reading when I should be doing other things. But I got to the point where I just had to know how things would turn out. I think the main thing that grabbed me so strongly was that the worldbuilding is so very solid and detailed. I was emotionally engaged in what would happen to Reseune and the Union as much as the fates of the individual characters.
There are lots of things wrong with Cyteen technically, primarily Too Much Exposition. Like, way, way too much. I found the lectures about philosophy and politics a bit annoying, whether they were in the mouths of the characters or authorial soliloquys in the form of Reseune educational materials. It's far too easy to create an SF world where your political ideas just happen to be correct, and the arguments and story therefore weaken eachother. (Delany gets a pass on this, but otherwise.) I think I might have got more excited about these parts if I had read Cyteen as a teenager. The viewpoint is all over the place; it just jumps into whoever's head is most convenient for the story, with little balance. The characterization is good enough that it's frustrating when a character is introduced because it happens to be convenient for them to witness a scene that furthers the plot, but then they're relegated to a walk-on again (the worst example is Grant, who is very much a major character in the early part of the book, and then isn't developed at all for the latter two thirds). And it's too bloody long, physically heavy enough that it's inconvenient to read, and there's a fair amount of glurge that doesn't really advance the story, though I suppose I would have been even more annoyed if it had been divided into several volumes.
But it's very easy to forgive that stuff when it's packaged in such an engaging and exciting story. It does a good combination of showing off the cool and detailed future imagined, with political thriller type excitement and intrigue and never quite knowing what information is reliable, but without ever cheating by witholding some crucial feature of the created world, in the way that SF thrillers are prone to do. Actually the only part where the drama is lacking is in the denouement; I never seriously doubted the outcome of the final confrontation, and somehow Cherryh manages to make big explosions and fatal shoot-outs less exciting than psychological tension!
I suspect the weakness is actually that Ari is over-powered relative to the story needs by the end. The majority of the book, where no matter how brilliant she is she's limited simply by her youth, is a lot better balanced. When I mentioned I was reading Cyteen, miss_next commented that she had trouble sympathizing with the characters, and I can see where she's coming from with that. But I found it relatively easy to relate to Ari, as I was an intelligent but not very nice kid myself. I think the unbalance comes in because she ends up with all Ari Senior's powers and none of her moral problems; once there is absolute trust (too absolute, relying on a handwavium sort of technology) between Ari and Justin, most of the tension falls apart. Against that, I did find it difficult to like Justin as much as the story seems to expect.
There is a rape as a major plot point, and one which is recounted with a lot of realism. Not at the level of physical detail of the actual incident, which I'm glad of because I really don't like that kind of porn. But at the level of the long-term psychological effects on the victim, not silly Hollywood style Trauma when it happens to be convenient for the story, but ongoing effects which are nonetheless only one part of his character. We also get some rapist POV, which I'm not on the whole a fan of, but I think it does work in this story. While I admire the sensitive handling of such a subject (in contrast to the all too common use of rape as a cheap emotional manipulation device), it did make it somewhat difficult reading in some places.
In some ways Cyteen feels old-fashioned. When I first started reading I had the impression that it was almost Brave New World fanfic. But it's exploring the ethical and philosophical issues raised by cloning in a sensible and detailed way. I do like the presentation of the azi; there aren't any cheesy analogies to the Civil Rights movement, but instead a sensitive examination of a genuinely ethically complex situation, with no obvious good guys and bad guys and very subtle connections to real world ethical issues. (The stuff about the rule of law and how to deal with terrorism and demagoguery is a bit obvious, but I can forgive that especially as it feels spookily timely 20 years after the book was written.)
When lethargic_man handed me this, I joked that I don't like reading books with shiny DNA double helices on the cover, but actually the biology in Cyteen is rather good. There's not enough detail to classify it as "hard" SF (I suspect more detail would have annoyed me either by being wrong or by being boring, if not both), but the biology feels like a technology, not like magic, plausibly complex and unpredictable. I think that's a lot to do with the fact that the scientist protagonists really are scientists, something which ironically is rare in SF. I am rather impressed with the portrayal of a world where what is essentially a research institute has accidentally got into a position of major political influence; the academic politics is dead on! The researchers genuinely care about their academic interests and their devotion to enhancing human knowledge, but also care about promoting their own career interests and can sometimes have blind spots where reality doesn't match their pet theories or ethical considerations get in the way of testing them.
All in all, Cyteen is an excellent read in spite of its minor flaws. I wonder if it would work well as an entry-level book. It is unashamedly geeky, so it probably wouldn't be the novel that converts someone starting from a position of despising SF, but it might be good for a reader who wants to get into genre stuff but finds some of the modern stuff intimidating. Thanks, lethargic_man; that was a really well-chosen present!
I'm still way behind, but I'm trying to catch up on reviewing the books I read while travelling. So if you are interested, here are my reviews of: Monica Ali: Brick Lane (didactic); and William Horwood: The Stonor Eagles (beloved but flawed).