Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh

downbelowDownbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

Cherryh’s future-history has humanity expanding out to the Beyond by way of the Earth Company, the dominant space-exploring power for some three hundred years. The space-born traders who haul cargo between stations are the Merchanters, each ship its own tribe or family confined by metal hull. The stationers live on the artificial satellites built like waystations, reaching ever on into the Beyond; several orbit “inhabitable” planets, of which Pell’s World and its native alien hisa was the first discovered. This delicate balance has existed for centuries: stationers need the flow of trade the merchanters provide, merchanters need a safe place to dock and resupply, and both need the cash-flow the Company brings in exchange for the flow of goods and ores sent back to Sol.

Now, the stationers furthest from Sol are in revolt, having formed Union; they have their own ships, their own goals, their own technology. Earth Company has lost touch, but wants control; its Earth Fleet conducts its own guerrilla delaying-action against Union for some time under the guidance of Conrad Mazian. The Fleet exists with waning backing from the Company and develops its own motives, a guard dog who’s since slipped its leash. Union victory is at hand; all the Beyonder stations are in Union control or destroyed. The surviving refugees from Viking and Mariner are packed into the orbital Pell station and abandoned by the Fleet; Pell shunts the lawless, frantic rabble into Q(uarantine) and struggles to keep order in a logistical nightmare.

Pell‘s motivation to maintain neutrality is challenged by both Fleet and Union: it is the last orbital station in the Beyond, with only an array of abandoned stations between a defenseless Earth and Union’s fleet. Its location makes it an ideal resupply station or the jumping-off point for an Earth invasion.

The start of the novel collects the many characters on Pell, putting the point-of-view characters in one place at one time:

  • The Konstantin family, ruling patriarchs of Pell and its fledgling Downbelow Station on the planet itself. Angelo is the patriarch; Emilio is the younger son, in charge of Downbelow, while older son Damon is head of the station’s Legal Affairs department
  • Signy Mallory, cold and ruthless captain of the Earth Fleet carrier Norway
  • Joshua Talley, captured Union armscomper with a mind full of secrets weighing on him; he opts for Adjustment—mindwipe—to be rid of them
  • Jon Lukas, rival to the Konstantins and bitter of his family’s lesser role in the station. It’s his desire to overturn the Konstantin dynasty and make the Lukas name known that turns him into the main antagonist
  • Vassily Kressich, former councilman to a destroyed station, now figurehead to the police gang who runs Q
  • Segust Ayres, Earth Company representative who has come to negotiate peace with Union behind Mazian’s back
  • Satin and Bluetooth, two of the alien hisa from Pell’s World who come to the station as workers, in reverence to a deceased on-planet foreman well-loved by the hisa

The characters themselves are not so shades-of-gray as other character-rich novels rife with intrigue (e.g., Game of Thrones), instead having “good” and “bad” characters. This makes several of them a bit flat as characters, and a few (Kressich comes to mind) end up rather two-dimensional by the end. Though, none are “bad” without cause or motivation, and several of them (Mallory, Talley, and the hisa) are quite complex.

Downbelow Station follows these characters as the station descends into anarchy, slipping in and out of martial law as the Fleet wills it, struggling to maintain order amongst the chaos. Union operatives make contact with the bitter Jon Lukas; Ayres’ attempt at diplomacy is routinely stalled; the situation in Q continues to devolve, especially when Mazian and his entire fleet arrives and docks at Pell, throwing the situation into a shambles again. Cherryh puts the reader in the confined corridors of Pell, breathing its dank, stale air, the floors slick with the blood of rioting Q; we follow characters reacting to events on a scale so utterly out of their control, and watch how their decisions and actions have an impact.

With the background of war and political intrigue, it’s important to point out that the novel is, first, a book about people. There is war, but it’s a backdrop event to the novel’s actions; there are giant spaceship battles, but most of them happen off-screen; there’s intrigue and espionage, because of the characters and their motivations. The novel’s pacing is slow and methodical, something that can annoy readers expecting a thrills-a-minute read, and after the initial burst of tension the reader faces some 200 pages of character development and intricate political maneuvering before the next power play. Cherryh also favors a terse sentence structure that’s awkward, obtuse, and full of future-jargon lacking a glossary. It has its own grace, after you acclimatise to it, but it’s not the most accessible writing style: you can’t really pick up the book and just dive into the story.

That said, I found the novel overall gripping, tense, and ominous; Cherryh is adept at creating situations that demanded I keep reading to find a resolution – and the resolution is always just a chapter away. It’s a space opera less from epic battles and climactic duels, and more from its sweeping scope, grandiose scale, and cast of backstabbing thousands each with their own motivation. The first sections of the book work to establish a foundation, and when the plot has got up to speed, things begin a wild and bloody downward spiral.

My opinion is easily recognized from my failure at objectivity; I left the book having really liked it, I started the review having really liked it, and so here we are. Downbelow Station can be a frustrating read, slow and dense and littered with future jargon whose definition is left up to the reader. It’s a book that demands patience, a long attention span, and an eye for detail. Yet I found it very rewarding because of its complex, challenging nature: the Byzantine political dynamics, the multitude of characters each with ambitions and failures. That the novel is so tense and gripping – despite its lack of overt action scenes – is a testament to Cherryh’s character- and world-building skills, her deft pacing, and a simply epic plot. To me, Cherryh writes what SF should aspire to.

Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh

downbelowDownbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by M Fenn

For some reason, I haven’t read much CJ Cherryh. In fact, before starting Downbelow Station, I can only remember reading one other of hers, and I don’t even remember what it was. It’s been a while.

Thanks to this Hugo-winning book, I’ll be amending that.

Downbelow Station is the first novel (not including the prequels) of Cherryh’s Company Wars series and takes part in her Union-Alliance universe. Published in 1981, it’s a complicated story, setting up a universe where a giant corporation (Earth Company) has become wealthy exploring the stars, building space stations around uninhabitable planets, all except for Pell’s World, a planet inhabited by the Hisa (called Downers by the humans who inhabit Pell Station, which orbits the planet).

When the novel begins, war has been raging between the Company and the Union, a group of colonists who have chosen to declare independence from Earth and the Company. The Union augments its military strength with clones. The Company has a fleet of warships commanded by Conrad Mazian. There is also a loose confederation of Merchanter ships involved in all this. Pell tries to maintain its neutrality and do business with all three groups: the Company, the Union, and the Merchanters. A crisis point starts the narrative of the novel, with one of the Company warships (led by Signy Mallory) unloading hundreds of refugees from another space station that’s been attacked by Union forces, causing the disruption of the people living on Pell.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that, but if I give you the whole synopsis, you’ll be reading for hours before even getting to my opinion of all that plot. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of political intrigue amongst all the groups and within them, except for the Hisa, who act more as observers than anything else. Or so it would seem.

I really enjoyed Downbelow Station. It took a while to get into as there is a lot of world-building/info-dumping in the first chapter or so, all of which is necessary to give the reader any idea of where they are. The book is a slow read, as well, because Cherryh’s prose is occasionally plodding and there’s just so much going on.

But I think the story makes up for those problems, and it eventually becomes an exciting read. Cherryh does a fine job establishing her universe and the conflicts therein. She also succeeds when working on the smaller scale of Pell Station and Downbelow (as the stationers call Pell’s World), translating the bigger conflicts to a more personal level, with stationers fighting for control of Pell against Union and the Mazianni (the Earth warships) alike. Her characters are decently drawn and she made me care about them.

The Hisa definitely fall into the “noble savage” trope of so much fiction. They’re sentient primate-like folks, assumed to be childlike by the humans that deal with them, but then surprisingly deep when they need to be. While reading, I went back and forth in liking them and not. Ended up settling into the liking them box, mainly because of Satin (Sky-sees-her) and her journey up to Pell to meet “the Dreamer” and see her planet’s sun, something the Hisa on-planet can’t do, because their skies are always overcast.

Another thing I liked about the book was that both men and women were in positions of authority without any sexist weirdness. I loved Elene Quen, a former Merchanter married to Damon Konstantin, one of the leaders of Pell. She finds herself back in space aboard another Merchanter ship (hers was destroyed by the Union) and ends up doing significant work to bring about peace talks. This announcement of hers made me bust out crying, because I’m just a dork that way.

This is Quen of Estelle. We’re coming in.

Signy Mallory, the commander of the warship Norway, is also incredibly bad-ass and I would love to see Sigourney Weaver play her, if a movie was ever made of Downbelow Station. It would be a fun film, for a lot of reasons. I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

This review originally appeared on Skinnier than it is Wide.

Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh

Downbelow StationDownbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by Adam Whitehead

AD 2352. Humanity is divided into two factions, the Company which rules over Earth and the Sol system, and the Union, which rules over the outer colonies and worlds. In between are a narrow band of independent stations, nominally loyal to the Company but open to all traders and merchants. For years the Company and Union have been at war, but Earth’s appetite for conflict is dwindling. In the end they have withdrawn practical support for their offensive fleet under Captain Mazian, leaving him a rogue agent whose goals and loyalties are suspect.

Caught in the middle of these turbulent times is Pell Station, circling the planet Downbelow in the Tau Ceti system. The closest independent station to Earth, it is a logical place for refugees from the warzone to flee to, straining resources to the limit. The Konstantin family which controls Pell Station struggles against the competing demands of Mazian’s fleet, the refugees, the station’s existing complement and the Company, and must also guard against infiltration from the Union, whose vast resources are finally gaining the upper hand in the conflict.

Downbelow Station was originally published in 1981, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel the following year. It seems to be regarded as the best entry-point for Cherryh’s Alliance-Union setting, a vast future history spanning centuries of mankind’s expansion into space and its division between different factions, and the various conflicts it faces. The setting encompasses several dozen novels published out of chronological order and divided into confusing sub-series, making it perhaps the serious SF counterpart to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld work in being slightly daunting for newcomers. Luckily, Downbelow Station makes a solid starting point for those interested in exploring the setting.

The novel’s setting is classic space opera. An opening prologue sets out the history of humanity’s expansion into space and the background of the Company Wars before we are dropped straight into the action, with the personnel of Pell Station, the mining settlement on Downbelow and the carrier Norway all struggling to handle the refugee crisis. Cherryh successfully gives the impression that this is an ongoing story and history, where we are simply dropping in to observe a crucial moment and are then pulled out again at the end. This process works quite well.

Overall, the book is solid, with some interesting characters who are drawn with depth, but where what is left unsaid about them (particularly Mazian, Mallory and Josh) is as important as what is. There’s also a nice inversion of cliché, with an initial figure who appears to be the typical bureaucratic buffoon is later revealed as a more intelligent and interesting character. There is also a fair amount of ruthlessness in the book, with major characters disposed of with little forewarning, but also a reasonable amount of humanity and warmth. Cherryh has a reputation for creating interesting alien races, and whilst the native ‘Downers’ of Downbelow are initially simplistic, they rapidly become better-drawn as the story proceeds as their full potential emerges, even if they’re not really all that ‘alien’.

On the minus side, after the initial burst of action accompanying the refugee fleet’s arrival, the novel takes a good 200 pages or so to fully work up to speed. During this period the book becomes bogged down in Cherryh’s sometimes odd prose and dialogue structures (terse, short sentences short on description are favoured throughout). The lack of description extends to the worldbuilding and even space combat. We are given very little information on what weapons the ships use in battles (mentions of chaff suggest missiles, but we are never told that for sure), whilst the economic structure of the merchant ships and the independent stations appears under-developed. Those used to the immense, Tolkien-in-space-style SF worldbuilding of modern SF authors like Peter F Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, Alastair Reynolds, may find the thinness of the setting somewhat unconvincing (at least at this early stage). In addition, Cherryh’s use of technology is somewhat inconsistent. None of the humans use implants, there are no AIs or robots, and everyone taps commands manually into computer consoles, yet at the same time there are also sophisticated memory-altering techniques and FTL drives.

Downbelow Station is ultimately a good novel and an intriguing introduction into what could be an interesting SF setting. However, it suffers from occasionally obtuse writing and some unconvincing worldbuilding, and it certainly isn’t better than The Claw of the Conciliator, The Many-Coloured Land and Little, Big – the books it trounced to win the Hugo.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.