13 January 2009

Yanni got skinks.

"Yanni got skinks".

I don't know if I can begin to explain why that is funny, if you wouldn't already laugh; I know that most people don't laugh reading the middle book of the Chanur seies, either. But C.J. Cherryh's Regenesis is, in a dark, grim, rationalist way, a glorious example of a comedy of self-image.

In talking about this, there are going to be massive spoilers, few direct and many by implication for both Cyteen and Regenesis. You have been warned.

Spoilers Spoilers Spoilers

Part of this is that azi—they grow them in vats, and shape their brains with tape, so that the normal human confusion of emotion must struggle, and in nearly all cases, fail, to afflict them—are the perfect straight man, and some of them, especially the alphas (Hi! we grew this highly trained high-end genius in a vat for you, and made them intensely goal directed!) know this.

"Sera," Catlin said to her, "agents have entered Dr. Patil's residence. They were on watch. They saw no one. But Patil has fallen out her window."


"Quite fatally, sera. It's twelve stories."
Part of this, more focused than Cyteen but actually a bit funnier, is the extent to which Regenesis goes to "put the fun in disfunctional"; there isn't, wasn't, hasn't been, anything that begins to resemble a functional family in Reseune in a very long time. Reseune is a research lab that manufactures personalities in wholesale lots, started during a desperate war by idealist scientist revolutionaries at the then-limit of human settlement, knowledge, and technical capability. The third successive generation after that of raving genius psychologists is responsible for creating the setting the characters live in...

Most of it, though, is Ari and Justin.

Both of these people are way, way off down the right hand end of the bell curve; they find ordinary geniuses socially dull. Ari is the psychogenetic recreation of Ariane Emory, whose name, status, and position she is intended to take over, because Ariane Emory the initial is the Architect of Union—Union is a multi-system interstellar polity with a population in the millions—and they need her to tell them if her social design experiment—you need those millions of people in a hurry, you grow them in vats, you create their minds with tape, they have kids, you better have got that tape right, hadn't you?—is going off the rails.

She's 18. She's madly in love with Justin, because Justin is the only other CIT—maybe grown in a vat, but not given tape until after they're born—in existence who can (mostly) follow what she's saying and who treats her as who she is now, not who she is expected to become. (The first Ari was a terror and a glory, capable of compassion only in the abstract. This influences how just about everyone interacts with present Ari.)

She can't get him into bed (Justin is gay; Justin and Grant, an exceptional alpha-azi the initial Ari created just for Justin, have been lovers for years, and that relationship is $MAJOR_REASON Justin isn't completely bonkers from stress; Justin is terrified of present Ari, on that level, thanks to several complex unfinished dire things her predecessor did to him; Justin is on the official semi-permanent security shit list, because of his father Jordan, officially responsible for murdering the first Ari, and because the folks who ran Reseune while present Ari was growing up broadly hated Jordan; they hated Justin's own unplanned interaction with both Aris, but especially present Ari, whom they were not creating quite to program, and the memory of 20 years of sudden interrogations in little rooms with bright lights and unspecified drugs has made Justin rather skittish...) so present Ari, carefully, as honestly as she can, and with the lavish hand of someone who exists at a level of political power at which numeric values of money aren't a relevant question, is nice to him. Which terrifies him more.

Justin is fortyish. (One could probably figure this out exactly from Cyteen and adding on one's fingers.) He's a clone. His father Jordan, whom he is cloned from, is a Special; this is like being a Nobel Laureate if that was a legal status of "too important to break". Jordan's a Special in educational psych specifically and psych generally, and Justin is his, decidedly failed, pyschogenisis project. Jordan's also wildly narcissistic and really, permanently angry that the first Ari altered Justin's mind in ways that prevent him from belonging to Jordan. (Not, note, that initial Ari drugged, raped, and altered Justin's core personality; that Ari I stole Justin.)

Justin winds up, dutifully, in a very adult-children-of-alcoholics way, having multiple dinner conversations with Jordan. None of them go well, and the rapidity, scope, and spectacle of the train wrecks, well. It ought to give almost everyone something to be thankful about how bad their family doesn't get over the holidays.

In the midst of all these very, very smart, and very, very socially constrained, in the sense of "do not get out much", people having doubts and agendas some plot happens; it is, like the usual plot of a comedy, not really that important. There's nothing wrong with it, and it does the right things at the right time to drive the comedy of self image along.

The main thing is still Ari and Justin.

Ari's supposed to be her predecessor, almost literally; the whole point to the very expensive project was to reproduce not just a geneset, but a psychset.

The people running the psychogenesis project in Cyteen didn't play it straight; they tweaked things, in part because they didn't fully understand what they were doing and in part because they did not want the original Ari back, who was staggeringly scientifically brilliant, all right, but also an unstoppable force of nature politically. So they were trying for a controllable, or at least less politically capable, Ariane Emory because she really was smart enough that they really do need her, because no one else has or can get a grip on what she did, but having her is a lot like accepting that you're going to be living in a society that has an invisible hand with an agenda, said agenda driven by the will and desires of this woman who has a biblically horrible temper and motivations you are, literally, too stupid to understand.

You can forgive people for not wanting to do that.

Present Ari even realizes, uncomfortably, that she can't be all that good a match for the personality of Initial Ari; the first Ari didn't care about people or want to be loved. So she thinks around "the project failed"—Cherryh makes it clear that Present Ari is as capable, scientifically and politically, as the Initial Ari, if not more so—and scrambles around trying to figure out how to make everything she loves and values safe, which includes not letting anyone else doubt that she's really Ariane Emory.

By the end, it's pretty clear Present Ari's going to pull that off; the ability and ambition and temper are all there, more consciously directed, perhaps, and the rigid streak of self honesty. So she's extremely effective.

Justin is not, generally, extremely effective; extremely skilled (he is clearly qualified for Special status as a psych-set designer), yes, and extremely stubborn, also yes, but he starts off stuck in the same "just survive" imagination of himself that he had throughout Cyteen. By the end, he's been through enough arguments with Jordan that the Initial Ari's intervention has, twenty years late, had a chance to finish; the bonds of filial piety are loosed, and the conviction of defeat is, obviously, ablating. Initial Ari's dead will is succeeding, again; Justin will be there for Present Ari, without Jordan's inability to not be in charge and with a nigh-equivalent brilliance to Present Ari, safely insulated away from the possibility of sexual complications. (Initial Ari's biases; present Ari laments this extensively, while admitting to herself that Initial Ari was probably right in this case.)

Justin hasn't had his freakout, yet, by the end of the book, but you can imagine that it's going to happen, as he finishes internalizing what the brilliant and ruthless personality who loves him only slightly less than her symbiotic security azi has determined that he can and should become. (The brilliant and ruthless personality that wanted her replicant to have him expected the fights with Jordan to happen sooner, very likely, but her determination about what he can become is still in there, too; there is a broad sense in which Justin isn't getting a real choice in this, and another in which he no longer actively minds.)

Justin and Ari sit down together at the end, legally and properly named to the Council of Nine that runs Union, after the plot has had things to say about the rule of law, scrambling Initial Ari's traditional political alliances in the process, and this has the same place in the story that the wedding would have in a more traditional romantic comedy.

That's what it is, too; they aren't going to be any physically closer than across the hall and the occasional hug in moments of courage and necessity, but they're going to be across the hall from each other for the next hundred years at least, and there is no one else in human space who can fully keep up with either of them when it comes to designing human minds. Present Ari has her echo; she isn't going to be alone in the dark with no one to bounce off of, going farther and farther from being something she could honestly call human.

See, say, Wave Without a Shore, and leave the question about present-Ari's humanity for another time; this is a Cherryhian happy ending to a romantic comedy, and that is enough marvel for one day.

Cherryh tends to write books from different viewpoints, that call into question what's going on in previous books in the same continuity. Regenisis isn't Cyteen, in the sense of being a ground breaking work, the first major artistic take on "what would you need to do to replicate a personality?" Cyteen, necessarily, came with an answer for "why in the nine hells would you try?" that made the attempt worth the expense for the people making the attempt, and Cyteen is in that sense epic.

Ariane Emory is, more or less, the One Ring; Union, the villains from the point of view of the original Merchanters continuity, has lost it and needs it back. Cyteen ends with present Ari doing something very close to "all shall love me and despair"; she's most unwilling to be wielded by any hand but her own.

Regenisis is the scouring of the Shire; the old, bad, mad plans come out, and the old alliances, and are, in the end, more or less cleaned up or swept away or, in the case of Eversnow, adjudged necessary. It's clear that the possibility of something newer and better is there; Ari is expanding her circle of trust, making a conscious decision to prefer that to her predecessor's isolation. Justin is inside that circle of trust and starting to believe it, which means he gets to finish turning into someone who can help guide Union along for the next century or so; the security, success, and useful work he's always wanted. Ari's age mates are clearly able and skilled and interested in building a better world. The last of the old generation is quite happy to pass the torch along to them, and this transition, diverse paranoias notwithstanding, looks like it's going to happen peacefully, post-plot. (Yani naming Justin proxy councilor for Science equates to giving the bride away; discuss....)

Which makes me hope that the next we hear of them is Alliance being, nigh-mortally, appalled; another Reseune book would almost have to heave the lot of them back into the gloom, and right now, I want to sit her and marvel quietly—C.J. Cherryh wrote a romantic comedy, with a happy ending, and she set it in Reseune.


chomiji said...

OK, I really liked this review! I'm especially fond of your con that it's CJC's version of a romantic comedy.

The other thing that I noticed, because I read and write fanfiction, is that the loving depiction of how exactly everyone's rooms are customized at Strassenburg fits the "curtain fic" trope, where the romantic leads set up housekeeping, and the details are described at length.

Graydon said...

Thank you!

And yes, "curtain fic" (look! they get a nice house!) certainly applies, with, ah, modifications suitable to the setting.

How much of the "this is a romantic comedy" angle comes from my made desire for Ms. Cherryh to write a Compact Space novel for which the title Kith and Knnn is not merely appropriate but actually necessary I cannot say, but it's surely not zero.