Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh

*Spoilers Ahead*

This is a massive volume that is both fascinating and oddly opaque. It's a murder mystery in which the mystery is never solved. It's a consideration of the ethics of manufactured humans, without going into as much depth as it could. It's a conspiracy that is partially but not entirely explained. And it centres around a rape, which ripples through the rest of the book, and I'm not entirely convinced that it's handled well, in the end.

I am a bit at a loss. I liked parts of it a lot. I was bothered by parts of it. There were parts where I wished we'd stop dancing around big topics and just hit them, head on. Those may be explored in more depths in other books in this setting, and I may have to check them out.

In the end, I'm not sure the rape is well handled, nor its aftermath, and that does leave a bad taste in my mouth. One of the main male characters is raped by his boss, after being drugged, and near the end, we get an explanation of "oh, she was just trying to start a psychological intervention that would have been for his own good had she been able to complete it," and wow, that's not really good enough, C.J. Cherryh. I'm sure you didn't mean to make light of rape, but given what we know of what happened (fragments), and the way that it haunts him for the whole rest of his life, trying to explain it away and make his rapist understandable in those actions? Not really good enough. Not by half.

If she's going to do horrific things, don't shy away from it, and try to make her into an altruist in the last hundred pages. Own her as a complicated character who is capable of great evil. Just...don't try to lessen it. Don't. 

Which is a pity, because there's much else here to like. It's a world where Earth has lost its centrality, but there are few actual other human planets. There are other settlements, but most are in space. One, however, is on Cyteen. It's risky, because the air is carcinogenic, but they've built settlements nonetheless. It's become the home of the largest research facility in, well, the galaxy. The government is made up of representatives of different utilitarian factions, and the Science representative is also the head of the Reseune research facility.

So there's a lot of politics mixed in with the science. And people who would kill for their own political agendas.

Reseune is most prominent for the creation of "azi," which stands for artificial zygote insemination. I had to look that up on wikipedia, as I don't remember ever hearing it in the book. Many people are born from artificial insemination, though. The difference is whether or not they are then programmed. There is a difference between citizens, who are raised by humans, and don't receive teaching from "tapes" until they are six. And then there are azi, who are trained from birth on tapes, and given logic structures by which to live their lives. Some azi can become citizens near the end of their lives. Most do not.

In essence, Reseune is the sole supplier of a slave population, one which is incapable of functioning outside of citizen purview. They're still custodians of all of them, theoretically to protect them from abuse. It gives them a huge amount of control. What would happen if the azi were left on their own is an open question in this book, but not a theoretical one. But it's one of those issues that's brought up and not pursued.

The director of the facility, Ariane Emory, is the aforementioned rapist. And genius. She is killed fairly early in the book. The person who confesses, it is fairly apparent, is probably not the killer. The murder mystery is not solved by the end of the book, and that disappointed me.

Reseune is staggered by this loss. According to her wishes, though, they attempt to clone her. Not just her, but her upbringing. Previous attempts to recover genius in this manner came to horrible conclusions. What will happen this time? And if the new Ari survives, how similar will she be to her predecessor? Why is she still fascinated with the young man her predecessor raped? Will she do a better job of being a person than Ari I? Or will she repeat those mistakes?

This is the centre of the book, and it is fascinating. I would be thoroughly enthralled for it if it weren't for that late attempt to shift the blame off the first Ari for a horrific act. If they'd just left that as it was, young Ari's development, and the question of whether or not she'd be who her predecessor was would have been even more powerful. What happens if you're designed to be the duplicate of someone capable of horrific acts? What does that do to you?

There are provocative ideas here. I never found it difficult to read. But the lack of follow-up on some of the provocative ideas was a bit frustrating. That paled, however, next to how upset trying to whitewash the elder Ari's actions in the final act made me. There are topics that, if you want to handle them, you can't back away from. You wanted a rape in your book, you can't try to make the rape okay after all.

It's too bad, because up to that, the long-term impact of what he'd experienced on Justin was well done, well-handled, interesting. Then I was let down. But the book is more than that. So I am torn.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

1 comment:

  1. I think of this novel as an exercise in cultural relativism deliberately pushed to the breaking point. Also as an exercise in technological speculation where the technology is that of human reproduction and education. We get to follow the POV of some quite likable and 3-dimensional characters, to whom the world they inhabit is normal and right. But by the standards of my own culture, or any culture I know of, that world is completely monstrous. Humans programmed from conception to be slaves, indeed less than slaves to the extent possible, mere robots. So what you read as whitewashing a rape I read as another reminder and illustration of how alien the moral framework of that world is.