Hereditary aristocrats order the building of palaces; plan colonies and wars; plot, scheme, and murder each other; all while watching for signs of rebellion among the slaves who make their life of luxury and backstabbing possible. But unlike in the Roman Empire, on the planet Cyteen the slaves cannot even dream of freedom.
C. J. Cherryh’s novel Regenesis (2009) is a sequel to Cyteen (1988), and continues the story more or less directly from where the latter left off. The novel fits into Cherryh’s career-spanning Alliance–Union series, and like its Hugo and Nebula award-winning predecessor, it is set on the planet Cyteen, capital of the Union, where cloning technology, combined with psychological conditioning through ‘memory tapes’ has led to a division of the population between aristocrats (‘CITs’) and cloned, brainwashed, slaves (‘azis’). The aristocracy is self-perpetuating—literally so in the case of the protogonist Ariane Emory 2, who is a clone of Ari 1, the director of Reseune Industries who was murdered in Cyteen, and who in turn plans the life of third-generation clone Ari 3 whom she knows will follow her.
Cherryh is a writer who never tells you the moral. She keeps a very tight narrative focus on her viewpoint characters, so that everything about the invented world is seen through their eyes, and interpreted through their stream of consciousness. To keep the dramatic tension high, these characters are often confused, scared, ignorant, or prejudiced, so that it becomes a tricky task to read between the lines of their immediate perceptions and concerns to identify the aspects of the background that are second nature to the characters, but significant to the reader.
Another of Cherryh’s techniques is to use plots-within-plots as a form of obfuscation: you think that you are gradually cracking the shell of the plot and breaking through to the underlying reality (here, who murdered Ari 1?), but really this is the least important part of the book: there’s a much more serious crime right out there in the open. When Cherryh spends the first half of the book describing an office move and the recruitment of Ari 2’s domestic staff, that’s not just padding,1 that’s showing you the crime in progress. Who built the new office? Who moved the paperwork? Who are the staff and what does it mean to recruit them? What does it say about Ari 2 that she has coercive (and, it is implied, violent) sex with her azi?
Throughout the novel there’s a focus on Ari 2’s need for safety and comfort: there are detailed description of the security arrangements for Ari’s new palace: the multiple concentric security perimeters, the surveillance cameras and shifts of guards, the azi always on call for security, food, or sex. This is contrasted with the frightening and dangerous world outside of the perimeter.2
So tight is the narrative focus on the protagonists that the CIT/azi social system, which is utterly normal to them, comes almost to seem reasonable. The CITs have closest contact with the ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’ azi who make up their households, and are treated, for the most part, humanely. (Think of notable Roman slaves who rose through domestic service in the households of important citizens, such as Tiberius Claudius Narcissus.) The ‘gammas’ and ‘thetas’ who take on menial or dangerous tasks, such as the terraforming of new colony planets, are not seen. (Just as the millions of slaves who were worked to death in the fields and mines of the Roman world are almost invisible in Roman history, appearing only when they rebelled.)
The morality of the CIT/azi system thus never comes up: the CITs we follow here are deeply complicit in the system, running the companies that clone and brainwash the azi. It’s only in the context of Cherryh’s whole body of work (for example, Downbelow Station or Forty Thousand in Gehenna) that one can see other views of this system. (During the events of Cyteen there was an abolitionist political party, though viewed as a terrorist group by the main characters. In Regenesis the abolitionists are ineffective and almost beneath mention.)
There is of course a danger for Cherryh in taking this approach, which is that the reader will be sucked into the viewpoint of the protagonists, and in identifying with them will uncritically take on board their justifications. For example, Nader Elhefnawy’s review of Regenesis in Strange Horizons briefly and correctly describes the CIT/azi system as a “slave society”, but commenter ‘JB’ objects in more or less the same way that a Cyteen CIT might:
The use of the emotionally loaded word ‘slavery’ to describe the relationship between the azi and the CITs as it appears in Cyteen and Regenesis connotes a fair amount of ignorance in these works. The CITs who own azi treat them as family members. Many of the main characters have conjugal relationships with their azi and rely upon them heavily.
That is, CITs use their azi for sex, and the azi are programmed to have no choice in the matter. Is this really a point in favour of the system?
But the real reason ‘slavery’ is a misnomer is that none of the azi would describe their servitude as slavery.
And that is of course one of the tragic aspects of the system.
↩ Paul Di Filippo: “forward movement of the story is slow and halting”; Nader Elhefnawy: “Almost three hundred pages pass before the (off-stage) murders that get the intrigue seriously going.”
↩ This theme is prevalent not only in other recent Cherryh novels—it’s a major feature of her Foreigner series—but also in the novels of Bujold. I can’t help but feel that this is designed for a readership feeling threatened and insecure (by economic insecurity? by the War on Terror?), for whom a fantasy of being secure and guarded—by servants who are programmed to be trustworthy and reliable—appeals.