Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ender's Game V. Cyteen: Pictures of Gifted Children

Recently, as I may have mentioned, my kid read Ender's Game as part of her home-schooling curriculum. This meant I had to read it, too, since I'm her literature teacher.

One aspect of the book which both the kid and I noticed was how unrealistic Card's portrayal of the child characters was. I know other readers have liked his child characters, but especially in this book, when Ender is supposed to be six at its start, and Peter and Valentine only a few years older, his writing of these characters is just wildly unrealistic.

"I don't write children," Card claims. "I write humans."

Well, this is a problem.  Not because children aren't human, but because Card seems to think here, and when he writes other novels as well, that only one sort of human exists.  Having decided that, he writes every human the same, no matter what age they are, or where they are from, or what gender they are, for that matter, mostly.

So his six year old Ender talks exactly like his forty year old Hyrum Graff, who talks exactly like Mazar Rackam, who talks exactly like six year old Bean.

(Oh. Wait. Occasionally the students talk "slang." And say fart.  And call each other by racist nicknames.  But you know.  Other than that.)

I understand why readers of SF novels want to believe little kids talk like this.  They remember being smart kids, and they remember being treated like objects by the adults around them -- as though their ideas and their desires and their opinions did not matter -- and to see Card writing children as if they are the equal of adult humans, in intellect and vocabulary and wit and forethought, that soothes the wounds that still sting inside us all.

And yet.

No, even the smartest among us was did not have a fully-developed intellect at six.  Or ten, for that matter (or however old Ender is when he smites the buggers).  Being brilliant and having a fully realized intellect are not at all the same thing.

Which brings me to Cyteen, by C. J. Cherryh, which by happenstance I re-read about a week after I read Ender's Game.

If you want a book which presents a realistic portrait of gifted children, here is your book.

Cherryh is ten times the writer Card is, so she's got an advantage over him to begin with.  And probably at least twice as smart as he is.  Also, her characters and the situation she is writing about are inherently more interesting.  So, all that.

But let me focus on her gifted children.  She writes about several, but the three main ones in Cyteen are Ariane Emory, Catlin, and Florian.

Ariane is the center of the book -- a genius ( a special, as the book has it) who has been cloned and is being recreated (psychogenesis) so that she can take over the running of her predecessor's company, Cyteen.

Florian and Catlin are her two bodyguards: also clones, also recreations, but azis, which is to say, slaves, more or less. (It's complicated, because Cherryh is always complicated, which is why she's so interesting.) Florian and Catlin are also alphas.

Azis come in different categories, a la in Brave New World: alphas, betas, gammas, and so on.  Alphas are the smartest, geniuses, but tend to instability if not socialized and given to the control of a qualified supervisor. (Supervisor of course translates from the Latin as overseer.  I do love Cherryh.)

I could talk about this book forever, as it is one of my favorites, but the point is -- and I do have one -- about half the book concerns the cloned Ariane and the cloned Florian and Catlin growing up, first separately and then together.

We get lots of scenes, inside their heads, of them reacting and thinking and talking and handling situations, from the time they are all about six and onwards.  And Cherryh clearly actually understands how brilliant children act.

That is to say, Ariane knows well enough from the time she's very young that something is up: that she is being betrayed by someone. (She doesn't know who for a very long time.) She knows she is surrounded by dangers, that her world is a risky and scary place.  She doesn't have the language or the worldview to handle everything she suspects or understands; she resorts to the sort of language gifted children will use.

She kept getting this upset feeling, no matter how hard she tried to be cheerful. It was not a Mad, either. She tried to figure out what it was...
Hell with Them, maman would say. Meaning Them that messed things up.

Catlin and Florian also have this half-invented, private language: Olders can be real dangerous, they tell Ari when she wants to find out who is betraying her.  You have to be careful, because they know so much more. Though, as Catlin adds, "If he's not expecting it, anyone can be Got."

Here, Ariane explains human behavior to Florian and Catlin, who, being Azi and raised in the barracks, don't really understand it:

"CITs have connections," she said.  She felt uneasy telling them.  It was like telling them how to Work someone. She explained, making a hook out of two fingers to hook together. "To each other, like you to Catlin, and Catlin to you, and both of you to me. Sometimes not so strong.  Sometimes real, real strong. And CITs do things for each other, sometimes because it feels good, sometimes because they're Working each other, sometimes to Get each other. A lot of times it's to protect themselves."

Wide, attentive stares. Anxious stares.  Even from Catlin.

"So you can Work someone to make them do something if you tell him you'll hurt him or hurt somebody he's connected to. Like if somebody was to hurt me, you'd react."  While she was saying this, she thought, So it's maman they want something out of, because maman is important.

It couldn't be the other way around.  They haven't told me they'd hurt maman.

But they're Olders, like Florian says. They always know more and they don't always tell you everything you need.

This is how smart, gifted kids talk and think.  These are actual kids, not 25 year olds in tiny little bodies.  And as Ariane and her tiny bodyguards grow up, their thinking, language, and worldview grows with them -- that is also something Cherryh does well.  (Whereas Ender Wiggins at 45 sounds exactly like Ender Wiggins at six, frankly.)

I guess I don't have to say that I highly recommend Cyteen if you're looking for a good book about not just smart kids, but smart ideas. No easy answers, though.  That's something Cherryh never does supply.


Mogwai24 said...

I've been recommending Cyteen to all my friends for years! Years, I tell you. And they refuse to read it because it's too long and difficult to understand (to be fair, Cherryh does throw a lot at her readers).

Regenesis is just as good. now I'll have to reread them :)

[Deleted and reposted because I do grammar good, apparently.]

delagar said...

Cherryh does demand intelligent readers who can pay attention!

Is there going to be a third in the Cyteen series, have you heard? Regenesis doesn't seem like it's the end of the story.

Mogwai24 said...

It looks like she might be revisiting the series at some point- http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/features/in-conversation-with-c-j-cherryh/


delagar said...

Thanks for the link, Mogwai!

Lindsay said...

Thanks for writing about Cyteen --- I'd never heard of it before, and I love books about gifted, unusual children. (I liked Ender's Game for that very reason, though I do intend to reread it now that I am an adult and can engage more critically with it.) I will definitely check it out, though --- I love complicated fantasy worlds, and am not at all afraid of detail! (I'm a fan of both Dune and A Song of Ice and Fire, so there you go.)

Ignacio said...