Cyteen is a Hugo Award winning novel that is extremely difficult to boil down into a simple “this is what the book is about and here are the highlights.” (At least, it’s hard for me to. Someone else might find it to be easier.) There is a lot going on in this novel, with political intrigue mixing with family drama and interpersonal conflicts. (It was a lot easier to review the sequel, possibly because the sequel was much shorter in length and took place over a shorter period of time.)
There are two, possibly three major storylines in Cyteen. The first is about Justin Warrick, a young man who is manipulated and blackmailed by Ariane Emory, the director of Reseune and one of the “architects” of Union. Reseune is a business that deals in “azi” workers–humans who have been “programmed” and mass produced for a variety of jobs. Justin attempts to outwit Ariane Emory but being seventeen, fails miserably at it; he succeeds only in getting himself and his azi Grant into even more trouble. When Ariane Emory dies under suspicious circumstances, Justin’s father Jordan is accused of her murder. This leads to a cover up and the second storyline.
The second storyline is about an ongoing project to replicate the personality of a person by raising their clone in an environment nearly identical to the one the original person grew up in. The previous attempt at this project failed rather spectacular and sensational fashion, but the original Ariane felt that she had solved the problems of the previous attempt. When the original Ariane dies, plans are put in motion to create Ari Mark Two.
Ari Two’s story is about growing up and slowly becoming aware that her life has been orchestrated to a very extreme extent. It is also about her efforts to wade through dangerous political situations at an early age and the fallout of various actions taken by the first Ariane. Ari’s story intersects with Justin’s and another aspect of the storyline is the relationship Ari Two and Justin develop, despite or because of Justin’s experience with the first Ariane.
The possible third storyline involves Gehenna, a planet that had been colonized as a kind of deliberate, insidious trap. The Gehenna project had begun by the Union’s Defense Department shortly after the end of the Union-Alliance war and involved dumping a bunch of military personnel and azi workers onto a planet, along with extremely dangerous diseases. The purpose here was not necessarily to create a colony, but to poison a well by creating a) an environmental disaster b) creating a population that would cause trouble for the Alliance if they were rescued.
One of the things the Defense asked the first Ariane to do was create a program that would ensure that the population would always be loyal to Union. Ariane was not willing or able to do this to “her” azi and instead created a program that would “axe” the azis Contract if all of the CIV military personnel died, and transfer their “Contract” to the planet itself. Now the Alliance has found Gehenna which has some interesting complications that neither Union nor the Alliance could have possibly foreseen.
(You can find out what the complications are by reading Forty Thousand in Gehenna, another book I really need to review.)
Cyteen is a great book with some interesting interactions and relationships. Cherryh is really good at writing believable child characters, and I enjoyed watching Ari Two grow up. I also liked the developing relationship between Ari and Justin. (This is not to imply there is a romance going on. I like how they develop a friendship despite Justin’s past and Ari’s discovery of what happened between Justin and the first Ari.)