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If you’re not watching the Canadian science fiction TV series Orphan Black (airs on BBCA on Saturday nights at 9) you’re missing out on some killer writing and telelvision. The plot involves clones—all of whom are very, very different and all of whom are played masterfully by Tatiana Maslany, who really should be tendered all the awards like right now.

But the show, which explores concepts of identity, property, and ethics amongst many other things, has a progenitor in literature, and that is CJ Cherryh’s Cyteen.

Cyteen is set in Cherryh’s expansive Alliance-Union universe which, at last count, covered some 27 novels.  You can read them in any order. Some are only loosely connected. Alliance and Union (or rather Earth and Union) are at war. Very few of the Alliance-Union novels are actually set in Union, and if you dive into this universe first with say, Downbelow Station, you’ll end up not liking Union at all. They are very much the enemy, and a very creepy, almost alien enemy at that.

Wouldn’t you want to find out what life is like for the enemy?

Union is a creepy place. Its homeworld is the habitable (but not by humans) world of Cyteen. Cyteen’s lifeforms are silicate. Even breathing in the pollen of one of Cyteen’s trees will give you cancer and you will die. As a result, Union began to terraform the planet—but then stopped when one of the lifeforms became the basis of a rejuvenation drug.

That’s not all that makes Cyteen creepy. Union practices, on a gigantic scale, cloning.
The armed services are all clones. Much of the service classes are clones. Wealthy Union citizens can clone themselves and can have their own personal clones that work for them. Clone nannies. Clone butlers. Clone farmers. Clone airline pilots. Most clones have few rights although their children do have rights. They call these clones “azi”, short for “artificial zygote insemination.” The azi are a major plot point in the book 40,000 in Gehenna, the events of which are referenced in Cyteen. They are grown and hatched, in a sense, and then trained via “tape.” Keep in mind, Cyteen was first published in 1988, and tape-storage was supposed to be big then. You'll read about tape storage and its uses in a lot of scifi from that period. “Tape” is subliminal, and it can be used for bad, as we’ll soon see. Suffice to say, a great deal of the distrust toward Union is due to cloning and brainwashing.

Union has brilliant scientists---many of the original colonists were scientists. It was from the planet Cyteen where humanity gained faster-than-light travel.  And on the planet Cyteen, in the research city of Reseune founded by her parents, lives Ariane Emory. She is a brilliant, accomplished woman.  So brilliant, she is part of a political class known as the Specials--kind of government sanctioned geniuses. And she’s politically powerful too, heading the faction in Union government known as the Expansionists.

Her work enabled the birth of millions of azi. Her “tapes” are used to program those azi and when they become part of the general population of Union, they’ll shape the culture in a way that’s very different from Earth and the Alliance. A way that she wants it to be. No wonder Alliance is freaked the frak out.

She is also Machiavellian and scheming. She is also a sexual predator.

There’s no mistaking what she does to the son-clone (Justin Warrick) of her rival Jordan Warrick. She, and her personal azi, rape him. Early on in the book, she drugs him and rapes him. The book says Justin was not the first victim. Ari has a taste and her taste is totally gross.

He was the last of her victims. Although Ariane was dying (and she knew it) shortly afterwards she’s murdered. Her murderer is not caught, but Jordan is suspected of doing it. He professes his innocence but pleads guilty to keep his son (who is now deeply traumatized) and his son's azi safe. He goes into exile at a research outpost on one of Cyteen's unterraformed continents.

A decision is then made, largely based on Ariane’s wishes, but creepy and disturbing nonetheless. The powers-that-be decide that Ariane’s mind was too important to the nation of Union to just say goodbye to. They decide to not only clone Ari, but to bring up that clone exactly as Ari-the-first was, believing that they could get that brilliant mind back, and perhaps, they could fix her problem. They'd tried this previously, cloning the person who had given Union, and humanity, the faster-than-light drive. It failed, because Emory believed they didn't bring that clone up the same way the original was.

Nature versus nurture? An interesting argument.

They replicate everything as best they can, from a mother figure who was neglectful to her friends to her cousins. They even replicate the original Ari's azi, since they were terminated after she was murdered.

Things go reasonably okay for Ari2 and her childhood until she becomes a teenager and becomes aware that she’s not the first. She’s not unique. She’s an experiment and a pawn in a very large and vast game—like the clones in Orphan Black.

The great thing about Cherryh, and she does this through a lot of her work, is the exposition is thin. The adage is “Show, don’t tell.” She most definitely shows. You’re dropped right in to the inner workings of Union from the very start. There’s a wider universe out there but instead of dropping in that wider universe in an info dump you learn about it just through living the lives of the characters with them. The discovery of the deliberately abandoned colony that is the entire story in 40,000 in Gehenna is a major event for Union, and figures heavily into parts of Cyteen. The threads from a half-dozen other books are threaded into the story as well. Unlike other science fiction, there’s a huge outside world that’s happening in the background beyond our characters.

And the outside world, in Union at least, is complex and a little bit horrifying. Bits of it are utopian, but then there's the slavery. It's a democracy, but then there's the slavery. There's the mind control via "tape." The azi are slaves; it's really tough to get over that. Grant, Justin's azi and later lover, is the property of Reseune, and he knows it. Ari1's programming of the azi has them set to favor her political faction, the expansionists.

There’s a court scene where another faction disputes that Ari2 should have any rights (although their larger intent is to expose the first Ari's involvement with Gehenna.) There’s scenes with the azi, where House and Yard azi are depicted (yes, the terms are right out of US slavery). There’s the programming (Ari1 tries to reprogram Justin to forget the rape---it doesn’t take and he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder for much of the rest of the book).  People vanish into exile from Ari2’s childhood because they’re not exactly the same as Ari1’s childhood, over a century before. Cherryh does not pull back. She dives right in and takes us with her, and you end up a little bit sympathetic for Ari1—the Machiavellian supergenius sexual predator and her society that masquerades as a democracy where a majority of the people living in it are clones and little more than slaves, at first.

The book doesn’t answer who murdered the original Ariane Emory though. For that, you’ll need to read the sequel, Regenesis.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sun May 25, 2014 at 06:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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