“The stars, like all man’s other ventures, were an obvious impracticality, as rash and improbable an ambition as the first venture of man onto Earth’s own great oceans, or into the air, or into space.” Thus begins Downbelow Station, an epic tale of man’s future beyond Earth.
The outer colonies of Earth have rebelled and are fighting a long, ferocious war against the Earth colony. Mazian’s fleet, the main battle fleet aligned with Earth, has been out of contact with their superiors for so long that Earth company no longer controls them. As they fight their losing war against the Union of outer stations, they leave wreckage and destruction in their wake, determined not to give Union forces anything that could be used against them. One by one, the stations that serve as stepping stones to the Beyond fall into destruction in this terrible, senseless war of attrition.
Pell is the last major station before Earth, the nexus point between the two warring sides. It is also the only station orbiting a marginally habitable world with sentient life–the peaceful and primitive Hisa, who worship the sun and dream of traveling one day to the stars. The Konstantin family is determined to do everything they can to maintain Pell’s neutrality, but with the war coming closer and floods of refugees bringing crime and disorder, that proves increasingly difficult. It is made even more difficult by power players within the station who, unbeknown to Mazian or the Konstantins, are seeking to strike a deal with Union.
This story won the 1982 Hugo award. Since I like to write science fiction, specifically epic space opera much like this, I was very interested in reading this book and seeing what Cherryh’s vision of the far future looked like.
Her worldbuilding in this book is really, really cool. In the first chapter, she outlines how human history takes mankind to the stars–through commercial means and business interests, not government expansion. Each station serves as a jumping off point for the next expedition to the next star system, with independent merchanters hauling the profits back to Earth and conducting trade between the stations. As humanity expands, however, communication between Earth and the Beyond becomes more and more difficult, and when the Earth company tries to impose taxes on the outer stations, they rebel and form the Union.
Stationers and merchanters have distinct cultures, with the stationers feeling much more rooted to one place, trusting more in bureaucracy, and feeling more of an allegiance with Earth and the company. Merchanters, on the other hand, are much more nomadic and independent, putting more credence to family names than port of origin, and tend to have single-parent families (to keep the population from becoming inbred, merchanter women remain single, obtaining their children through short-lived relationships whenever they come into port). Two of the main characters (Damon and Elene) are a stationer-merchanter couple, and the cultural differences really come out in the way they interact with each other.
At the same time, it’s a story of first contact and what happens after first contact. The Hisa are a distinct race of sentient beings, creatures who don’t understand the ways of the humans, especially war. Their presence adds a degree of tension, especially when you consider how disastrous the war could be on Human-Hisa relations. The Hisa, however, are very clever, and the humans come to realize that they have a lot to learn from this peaceful race of furry little creatures. One of the viewpoint characters is a Hisa, and it’s really interesting to look at the station, the world, and the humans from this alien perspective. Cherryh did a good job creating a believable, complex alien race.
Overall, this story is more about grand ideas and concepts than it is about individual characters, so while Cherryh did a fair job with her characterization, her point of view was always a bit distant and I never felt extremely close to any of her characters (except perhaps Mallory–more on that later). That made it a bit hard to read the story as I got deeper and deeper into the story. There was a lot of setup before the action really started to break, and because I wasn’t very close to the characters, I didn’t feel as engaged by the story.
The action, too, was very difficult to visualize. I never really understood how faster-than-light travel worked in this book, and because all of the space battles happened partially inside warpspace, I never knew what was going on. That was a little frustrating, and kept me from really understanding or getting the tension. The gunfights and hand to hand combat was good, but it was almost always chaotic mobs against lines of armed police and/or soldiers, and never really described all that concretely. Cherryh didn’t really describe what the soldiers were wearing, what they looked like, what their guns were like, what the mobs looked like, sounded like, etc. Distant viewpoint, more conceptual than immediate.
The political situation, however, was very interesting and complex. There were a lot of different players, each with their own distinct goals and interests. There is the Company, whose chief spokesman in the beyond is Ayres, a diplomat whose delegation essentially becomes prisoner to the Union; the Union, lead by Admiral Azov, a shrewd, effective military commander; there’s Pell, led by the Konstantin family (Damon, Emilio, Angelo); but then within these three main parties there are all sorts of other divisions, such as Mazian’s fleet (and within Mazian’s fleet there is another division, with Mallory and her ship as a sort of loose cannon), the merchanters, the Lucas company (Konstantin’s main rivals within Pell), the refugees of Pell (known as “Q,” for quarantine), etc etc.
With some of these groups, you know clearly who is good and who is evil. With others, however, you’re not so sure. Mallory was a fascinating character to me–fascinating because even though I hated what she was doing to everyone else, I really admired the way she ran her ship, the way she respected and took care of her troops, and the way she was always on top of things. She earned my respect, despite that I spent a good portion of the book hating her, and of all the characters, she was the one I felt closest to. She always did what needed to be done, even if it meant getting her hands bloody, and though she was a bit arrogant, she made up for it by being an excellent, top-rate leader. She was by far the most interesting character, the wild card, and Cherryh played her very well.
Cherryh’s writing is very dense and abstract; this book took me a lot longer than I thought it would. It’s not for everyone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if ended up quitting midway through. I almost did that, but I forced myself to read through it until the plot really took off. Cherryh’s vision of the future, however, is really fascinating, something complex, futuristic, and yet very believable, from the way she connects everything together. A fascinating world, and a vision that is, for all the war and horror, satisfyingly hopeful in the end.