Cyteen - C.J. Cherryh image
Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.

On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.

While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).

Back in '89, when Cyteen was winning the Locus Sci-Fi award, I was a precocious five year old chatterbox who was obsessed with dinosaurs and had just learnt how to pronounce 'stegosaurus'.

It wasn't a vintage year for Sci-Fi - a couple of good-looking Bujold stories, Asimov's Prelude to Foundation and Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive were the other main contenders.

I can’t think of another book that I whinged about so much while reading and then said at the end, “yeah, that was really good.”

We had a battle of wills, did Cyteen and I, and Cherryh won out.

At the beginning I thought it was slow, impenetrable and quite frankly rather dull.

By the end I still thought Cyteen was slow, but had come to recognise that it was imbued with the same kind of irresistible majesty as a glacier slowly crushing an abandoned Swiss village. What once seemed like an impenetrable tangle of details, keeping me a distant, impartial observer, had morphed (without me noticing) before the story’s conclusion into a snarl of barbed heart-strings that was impossible to escape from without being emotionally flayed. A drop of pond water can, at first glance, seem disinteresting but under a microscope it transforms into a vivid ebb and flow of outlandish and fascinating microlife battling for survival and supremacy. This is Cyteen: dismiss it at your peril.

This a book with depth, complex characters that gradually capture your affections, and no hesitation in striking out with its thematic sledgehammer. Cyteen is hard work, I won’t lie. There’s nothing else to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award with the same kind of scope and density.

I’m trying to think of books to compare it too, and I’m struggling. It’s a little like Robinson’s Red Mars, in that it’s dry, convincing but seems to lack joy in the telling. It’s a touch like Bujold’s Vorkosigan books – in that it’s a female sci-fi writer with a good eye for character and political intrigue. An unusual touchstone – but it reminded me a little of Eco with the flood of minutiae. And there was something Chronicles of Thomas Covenant about the whole experience – a feeling that it was a reading ratio of one-third endurance to two-thirds enjoyment.

But I’m a sucker for a good clone story. I love questions of identity and ethics: the psychoanalysis we all perform over the relative importance of formative events. I ploughed through Cyteen, complaining the whole way, but couldn’t put it down!

Definitely worth checking out if you like a challenging read.