Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, September 27, 2012

1989: Cyteen- The Betrayal (Cherryh, C.J.)

The prominence of punctuation, dialogue and presumptuous greatness (1/5)

I was leery of picking up Cyteen for two reasons: (1) The author was unknown to me and diving into the 680-page book of unknown prose was daunting; (2) The book is often heralded at one of the greatest sci-fi books of all time. The latter reason is usually a signifier for my immediate dislike of any “popular” science fiction, for example: Herbert’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation, Niven’s Ringworld, Clarke’s Childhood’s End, LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Tepper’s Grass, and Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep. I’d like to welcome Cyteen to that elite group of books which, for some reason beyond my internal notions, have been popular with sci-fi fans for decades. Could it be: (1) the sense of wonder, (2) the majestic prose, (3) the revelatory scientific concepts, or (4) the magnificent world-building? Nay, Cyteen strikes nil in all four categories. Cyteen was once published as three separate novels, but I could only get past the first: The Rebirth. My stomach revolts at the thought of reading the remaining two books.

Rear cover synopsis for full-length Cyteen novel:
“Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, this is bestseller C.J. Cherryh’s masterpiece: a multilayered epic of interstellar cabals and dark human passions; genius, blackmail, and sacrifice; murder, resurrection, and the betrayal of innocence—and loyalty stronger that death…

The classic novel of C.J. Cherryh’s Merchanter Universe: a profound exploration of genetics, environment, nurture, society—and the secrets of human intelligence.

The saga of two young friends trapped in an endless nightmare of suspicion and surveillance, or cyber-programmed servants and a ruling class with century-long loves—and the enigmatic woman who dominates them all…”


There’s a fair bit backslapping going on with that synopsis with words like “winner,” “epic,” “classic,” "profound," and “saga” among them. If a book NEEDS these kinds of words for its synopsis, my alarm bells begin to ring. The loftier or more poignant the language seems, the lesser the content is able to actually deliver… IMHO. I read through Cyteen enough to come to the end of the unmarked yet definite conclusion to the once published Cyteen: The Betrayal (Book One) and decided enough was enough. Whatever marked its presumptuous “greatness” was so absolutely absent from the pages that the remaining two books (The Rebirth and The Vindication) held no interest for me. Tedious, thorough, and tiresome; I would have rather have fingered through my Gregg’s Reference Manual than attempt to slog through the convoluted introduction to Cyteen.

Let’s revisit the four threads above which are commonly part of any great science fiction novel and apply these generalities to see what exactly Cyteen when wrong:

(1) The Sense of Wonder: Considering that the novel starts off with the politicking and jockeying for position, the reader is left to revel in the loathsome bureaucracy. Cherryh places importance on names and titles, totally ignoring the reader’s desire to become immersed in the tactile atmosphere or tangible aura of the setting. The background history is scant and the past’s impact on the present is dull. The reader is lulled into an uninspired state and left out to dry. (You could get all literary on me and say her style is "very tight limited third person"--Five words which describe "boring" quite well.)

(2) The Majestic Prose: Much like the synopsis above, the pages are filled with tedious punctuation: simply too many commas, semi-colons, and dashes. It almost reads like the tedious prose from two centuries back. Many sentences begin with “and” or “but” with the conversation being hacked to bits with this trialling punctuation and sentence fragments. The dialogue is so heavy that the author tends to, once again, forget about the reader trying to become immersed in the reader—no sense of atmosphere, no silence amid the sentences, nothing to ground the characters to their environment. Words, words, and more words which convey little more than politicking and jockeying.

(3) The Revelatory Scientific Concepts: Eugenics is nothing new (early 20th century thought) and cloning is nothing out of the sci-fi ordinary (middle 20th century thought). The theme of selecting favorable genetic traits for job assignment had been done before. Producing a more efficient soldier or a more intelligent scientist from the manipulation of mind control tapes isn’t a very new idea either (author James White had doing that since the 1960’s). Artificial wombs, orbital labs, genetic seed ships—all have been penned before. I couldn’t pin down anything really unique besides the combination of factors.

(4) The Magnificent World-building: Like the “Sense of Wonder” above, much of the atmosphere and aura in Cyteen is missing. There’s very little “world” to build upon when the basic construction of the novel is founded on lengthy dialogue and jockeying for political gain. The same can be said for its “Character-building,” which much science fiction ignores. No one character has a solid background, no one is worthy of empathy, and no one really jumps at to the reader as someone who is a go-getter protagonist. Surely there’s a plain divide between the rather generically labeled “good” and “bad,” but neither side warrants either label.


The agony of plodding through the abundant honed-blades of dialogue, treading lightly upon the jagged remains of a scantily dressed background, and tip-toeing through the abandoned walls of old scientific enquiry was reason enough not to push myself into the second part of the Cyteen trilogy: The Rebirth. Whatever premise, plot, promise, or pugnacious pursuit Cyteen held between its front and rear covers will forever remain unfathomable to me because of its lack of reader engagement: wonder, prose, concept, and worlds—the synopsis promises everything yet delivers nothing but tiresome words penetrated with tedious punctuation. Again, Gregg’s Reference Manual is more engaging than this.


  1. Boo! That's all I'm going to say....

    Not my favorite of hers but still a great read.

    Perhaps Merchanter's Luck (1982) is more up your alley. A shorter, stand alone novel, with a more rigorously defined plot and some disturbing paranoia.

  2. Your use of "great" is ill-defined... as is mine :( But hey, I got a great price on selling it to the second-hand book store! Picked up that anthology I mentioned on FB and got Camus's The Plague (1947).

  3. Cyteen is a bit wordy and dense; most of her other books are more straightforward but intelligently done space operas and may be easier to get into: Downbelow Station, the Faded Sun trilogy, Merchanter's Luck.