It would be difficult to say anything intelligible about C.J. Cherryh's new novel Regenesis without first saying something about the book to which it is a direct sequel, 1988's Hugo-winner, Cyteen.
The premise of that novel, which like much of her prolific output is set in the sprawling Alliance-Union universe, is a fairly simple one. On the titular planet, which the Union hopes to terraform into a second Earth, "born-men" with full citizenship rule over a slave society of manufactured, programmed "azi," reminiscent of the lower orders in Brave New World, while an aristocratic oligarchy rules over all.
Here, as well as in the rest of humanity's interstellar civilization, the great political question is over the proper limits of its expansion through space. Ariane Emory, the head of Cyteen's Reseune Labs, and an unlikely combination of epoch-making scientist (indeed, a certified genius who has "Special" status) and power-mad Machiavellian politician, is the most powerful person inside that civilization, and heavily involved with controversial schemes in this area.
When she is murdered the political intrigues in which she is involved, her penchant for making political enemies, and the less seemly details of her personal life, mean there is no shortage of suspects. The responsibility for her death is pinned on her subordinate Jordan Warrick (another "Special"), who had recently confronted her over her blackmail and abuse of his son. Jordan is forced to confess by the authorities, and promptly exiled to a distant research program (his Special status exempting him from harsher punishment).
All of this happens in the first fifth or so of the book, leaving any number of loose threads. To the end of drawing them together, supporters of Ari's plans undertake a program of "psychogenesis"—the recreation of a dead person using their genetics, and a meticulously researched, carefully crafted environment for their upbringing, The Boys From Brazil-style. Their hope is that "Ariane Emory II" will complete the work of her earlier self. That process, and the machinations surrounding it (a major factor in which is that the mystery of Emory's murder has not been really solved), are at the center of the story as it traces out the often unexpected ripples of its Big Event.
At the start of Regenesis, Emory II is eighteen, and increasingly coming into her own, while coping with the psychological and practical burdens of Emory I's legacy. Jordan (quite understandably embittered) has also just been recalled from his earlier exile. Meanwhile, the plan to terraform the icy world of Eversnow (a new element in the plot) is on many minds.
Cyteen enjoyed widespread acclaim (as the endorsements on the back cover of my copy of Regenesis reminds me), and the awards it won include the Hugo for its year (during which it competed with, among others, William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy conclusion Mona Lisa Overdrive and Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net). Furthermore, there seems to be little question that it still has plenty of fans.
Nonetheless, two decades is a long time, especially in science fiction. The problems that always face writers returning to a given story after a long lapse aside, our expectations about the future are an exceptionally ephemeral thing, and Cyteen is especially susceptible to dating poorly, given its hard science approach, and some of the details of its history and world-creation. Cyteen, the reader is informed, was settled by "Eastern Bloc" scientists, and in the story's biotechnology-centered future, the information technology—the "tapes" used to program the azis, the surveillance gear prominent in the intrigues—already seems old-fashioned.
Cherryh's writing style, however, blunts the problems this poses for her continued world-building twenty years down the line. The tight third person perspective Cherryh uses means that she can just choose not to talk about a great deal of potentially inconvenient details, and simplifies the tricky problem of inserting the ones that would update the book. (Nanotechnology, certainly not part of the story in the original novel, makes its appearance in Regenesis.) The precise origins of the planet's inhabitants are a minor issue, as are the specifics of the story's props.
Nonetheless, Cherryh's style poses other problems, not least of them abrupt, unannounced changes of perspective that can catch a reader off-guard even when they are paying close attention. (Bluntly put, it is possible to read closely for several paragraphs before finding a clear indicator of a point-of-view shift, a sacrifice of readability to form.) Additionally, my feeling was that the world imagined in the novel lacked solidity. I would say that Cherryh's writing was overly "lived-in," as if attempting to realize Willa Cather's ideal of the "unfurnished novel" as sketched in her essay "The Novel Demeuble," in which all the tangible and practical details of the world are presented by subtle suggestion and implication, so as to clear the proverbial stage for the thoughts and feelings of the characters. However, the book also happens to be chock-full of info-dumps, crammed with excerpts from an assortment of fictional documents explaining key points, as if to fill in the gaps left by the more purely personal passages. This does not always work, in part because of the combination of very complex intrigue with slow pacing and plotting loose enough to give the impression of a chronicle rather than a saga. Indeed, the first sixty pages of Cyteen are nearly impenetrable.
Fortunately, Regenesis is stronger in many respects. There is a better sense of the fictional world, and the info-dumps are more artfully inserted into the story (in particular, the recordings Emory II is making for herself). The narrative also moves more smoothly, and is less demanding of the reader's patience, particularly on the level of trying to determine what is going on at a given moment-though of course, it helps that the first book set up much of the exposition, and that the story covers a period of months rather than two decades. It also offers the reader a reasonably good answer as to who Emory's capital "E" enemy was all along.
Nonetheless, despite the easier flow of the book, it is also rather slow to set up its major incidents, even by comparison with Cyteen. Almost three hundred pages pass before the (off-stage) murders that get the intrigue seriously going. It is also the case that the Enemy, while known to readers of Cyteen, was only a secondary character in that book, and is never actually seen in Regenesis. Indeed, they are mentioned only a handful of times until more than midway through the book (and seems to actually be forgotten for over two hundred pages), after which their actions begin to drive the events. Additionally Regenesis does not offer any revelations as interesting as Emory's role in the events that unfolded on the planet of Gehenna, which were the subject of their own pre-Cyteen novel, 1983's Forty Thousand in Gehenna.
Of course, Cyteen offers not just a political thriller, but a novel of ideas. However, I have to admit that I found Cherryh's handling of the ecological issues in Cyteen overrated. The controversies over terraforming and Expansionism often seem more like a MacGuffin than a theme, the points themselves raised without being delved into very deeply, existing mainly as objects for the characters to maneuver and obsess over, and unfortunately, this also holds for Regenesis. (Despite the claims made for Cherryh's originality, writers from Aldous Huxley to Frank Herbert to Ira Levin handled most of Cyteen's key ideas earlier—and often, better. And of course, they have also been amply treated with since then.)
One of the more noteworthy aspects of Cherryh's writing is that her principal characters tend to exist in a complacent bubble of privilege at the pinnacle of a brutal and corrupt social order, much as one would imagine Roman patricians to have done (to go by the "gentlemen's history" by which later eras have known them). While there is an intrinsic interest to such an approach, and Cherryh (who was once a teacher of classics) is impressively consistent in the execution, it seems to yield little in the way of special insight. (Indeed, given that writers are often taken to endorse what they may simply be depicting it surprised me that Cherryh had not been taken to task for her politics, real or perceived. She can easily be taken for a reactionary of High Modernist extremity, espousing "social opinions which would have been thought distinctly uncivilized and demode at the time of the Plantagenets" as C.P. Snow once put it.)
Rather, the most interesting aspect of Cyteen as an "idea" book is its examination of the psychological makeup of its biotechnological products—the tracking of the psychogenesis of Emory II, the probing into how the minds of the subservient azi work. Unfortunately, Regenesis has little to add to those parts of the story, and offers nothing new to take their place.
Not surprisingly, after it was all over, I had little feeling that something fundamental had been decided, a turning point passed in the evolution of either the book's main character, or the larger drama of her world and her civilization. Regenesis felt like just a continuation of the chronicle, one that could go on indefinitely if Cherryh is inclined to do so. All this being the case, the real question is the eagerness of the reader to revisit the planet and characters of the first book, and for me they were just not compelling enough in themselves to warrant a second novel.
Nader Elhefnawy has taught literature at several colleges, including the University of Miami. He reviews and writes about science fiction for several publications, and his blog, Raritania.