42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 1997
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I had read about C.J. Cherryh's massive Alliance-Union series in a science-fiction encyclopedia and wanted to find a good place to start. The encyclopedia suggested what it considered her two best books, Downbelow Station and Cyteen. As it turned out I could find neither of them immediately, but I kept the two in the back of my mind over the months as I shopped. And, one day, while searching through a bookstore, I found to my pleasant surprise that the publisher had released a new edition of the novel, which I quickly snapped up and read.
Now, to the actual novel. Since I had no prior knowledge of any other Cherryh book, I just held my breath and dove right in. Fortunately, Cherryh does not bog you down in continuity, giving you all the pertinent information right in the first chapter, thus absolving the reader of any feeling that they are missing something that happened previously. The story is an excellent thriller, highlighting a wondrous cast of characters, and giving them a genuine disaster to overcome, allowing the reader to see exactly what makes each character tick as things fall further and further apart. Throw in an interstellar war and numerous subplots and you have probably the finest science-fiction novel on the subject, though its length may daunt less dedicated readers. Still, it remains one of Cherryh's finest works, even today, almost twenty years later
58 of 65 people found the following review helpful
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I first met Carolyn Cherry(h) at AggieCon in the late '70s, when she was still teaching school in Oklahoma and had just completed her first novel, _Brothers of Earth_. She had written that book in a sort of social vacuum, with no notion of the existence of the fannish world and was amazed at the warm reception she received from a bunch of enthusiastic strangers. That book and its sequels, plus the "Morgaine" trilogy, made me a fan and I enjoyed her work for years, including this first installment in the "Merchanter" series when it first appeared. Unfortunately, success seems to have made her lazy in recent years and she has recently been churning out interminable formulaic series, often sharing the credit with younger writers, and I find most of those efforts to be unreadable. Anyway. Downbelow Station showcases Cherry's inarguable talent for complex but understandable geopolitical plots, many-layered characterization, and truly alien cultures that humans are never really going to fully understand. There are several sides to the conflict here: The Company, now in charge of an isolationist Earth; the Fleet, once the enforcement arm of the Company but now pretty much independent; Union, formed out of the farther worlds of the Beyond and possessed of a new psychological style completely foreign to Earth; Pell, a station circling a planet which circles Tau Ceti, and which only wants to left alone; and the free Merchanters, making a living hauling goods between the worlds and the stations. Pell is a civilized republic in the best tradition, but they're about to lose all that. Mazian's Fleet has been on its own devices for far too long to have a regard for any other culture and is quite willing to destroy a station and all its thousands of inhabitants in order to keep it out of Union's hands. And Union is a chilling example of nascent fascism based on state-controlled cloning. The Merchanters, who are the focus of most of the later books in this universe, must find a way to work together if they are to survive at all. Peopling this tumultuous plot are the Konstantin family, the sort-of Medicis of Pell, willing to believe the best of others and appalled at what power-seekers are doing to their station, especially the Lukas family. And there's Capt. Mallory of Fleet carrier NORWAY, a bloody-minded commander who nevertheless hews to her own kind of morality. And the hisa, the indigines of Downbelow, whose nonviolent assistance to Pell becomes crucial as the story progresses. And Jessad, the Union agent who has his own agenda on Pell. And Josh Talley, ex-Union agent who wants to find a new home there -- or maybe he's not so "ex." And there's a large supporting cast, all of them also exceptionally well developed. This is a fat book, more than 500 pages, but it never slows down and you'll never lose interest. Definitely one of Cherryh's best.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 1997
Format: Mass Market Paperback
It's been quite a few years since I first read "Downbelow Station", having found a dog-eared copy in a used-book store in Silver Spring, Maryland, and since then just about every book Cherryh ever wrote has come to grace my bookshelf. But still, I come back to this novel, which won the Hugo award in the early 80s (1981, I believe).
It's evident from the style that this is one of Cherryh's earlier books; it's not as smooth or sophisticated as "Tripoint" or "Cyteen", both of which are set in the same universe. It does, however, represent a sweeping vision of humanity's possible future, showing not only how we may colonize the stars, but how living among the stars may change us as humans.
For it is one of the most impressive things about this book that the characters are human. Over a year after my last re-reading, I still recall Angelo Konstantin, Elene Quen, Jon Lukas, Signy Mallory, Vassily Kressich, Satin and the rest as if they were old friends. "Downbelow Station" is not only a splendid introduction to Cherryh's thoroughly explored and well-populated Alliance-Union universe, it's an excellent introduction to science fiction in general, as a novel that addresses the tough questions of humanity's future
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2002
Format: Mass Market Paperback
It's easy to see why Cherryh's work is so lauded by the prize-givers of the science fiction community. Downbelow Station is like a complex spy thriller set in an otherworldly locale. There are dozens of forces in play, most of them at odds with each other: the space station Pell, Mazian's Fleet, the planet Cyteen, the forces of the Union, the Konstantin family, the curious alien creatures called 'the hisa', fleets of Merchanters, the ambitious captain Signy Mallory, and hosts of others. Balancing all these forces (or even keeping track of them) is a momentous task, and Cherryh should be applauded for her technical achievement in piecing it all together.
But all that aside, this reviewer finds the book far more technically admirable than pleasurable. Trying to remember who's who, and what they're trying to accomplish, and who they're squaring off against, can be extremely frustrating, especially for a casual reader. Perhaps those who've read the previous books in this series would be better prepared for the vast array of political and social forces whose intertwinings provide the real plot for this novel. In any case the bigger problem with this 400 plus page book is that it is positively bone dry. There is no hint of humor anywhere in this volume, nor is there much sentiment or real emotional impact, largely because the reader's attention is scattered among so many different characters that this reviewer found it difficult to identify with any of them. Indeed, one could well be halfway through the book and still not know which characters are the heroes and which are the villains. Surely this is one of the book's strong points from a historical-political perspective, but as an entertainment it's a near-disaster. If you think science fiction should be fun, or if you like rooting for the good guys to stick it to the bad guys, this book will be a severe disappointment. On the other hand, if you're a big fan of political intrigue, you might well enjoy a long journey to Cherryh's complex, multi-layered, fully realized worlds.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
This book sets the stage of Cherryh's Alliance/Union universe, which is one of the more interesting and realistic science fiction universes out there. Cherryh has taken pains to imagine how a human exploration of the stars might realistically progress and what she comes up with is intriguing. This book focuses on the station in the Pell system, a place that sits between past and future, Earth and Beyond; Pell finds itself the focal point of the culmination of the long conflict between Earth and her rebellious Beyond colonies.
While the setting and story are interesting and engrossing there are a few flaws that mar what would have otherwise been a near perfect book. The first is the near absence of characterization. This is especially a shame because in several of her other books Cherryh does an exemplary job of characterization. In Downbelow Station, however, we are hard pressed to tell the difference between Emilio and Damon Konstantin. We never completely understand the motivations or goal of Union, Earth, or Fleet. We never understand why the inhabitants of Q are treated (and act like) sub-human criminals. Honors for worst characterization, however, go to Signy Mallory, the most pivotal character in the book.
This problem comes to full head in the climax of the book when suddenly we fail to understand the reasons for the actions these characters take. And without that understanding it, unfortunately, feels like nothing more than a deus ex machina used to resolve an otherwise unresolvable situation.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2003
Format: Mass Market Paperback
...many authors write themselves into corners. Few can write their way out. C.J. Cherryh starts herself out in a corner: Imagine Beirut in space, a space station caught in the effects of nearby wars, suddenly dealing with an influx of refugees (some of whom are surely terrorist agents of governments who may be looking here for their next target).
But Cherryh is not content with the difficulty of writing her way out of this. She makes it even harder by weaving a layered tapestry of conflicts, overlapping in ways that make them hard to resolve. In one storyline the protagonist (heck, call them "good guys," they usually are) may be the bad guy at another level in the tapestry. And yet she gets the reader rooting for and against them simultaneously. This is hard enough to achieve, yet almost impossible to resolve.
Still, somehow Cherryh manages to attack this Gordian Knot with a climax which slices through to enormous complexities she's raised with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.
Perhaps we should send her as our next ambassador to Lebanon.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2010
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 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 cliche, 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 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 (***½) 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). The novel is available now in the USA, but has no current UK edition. Imported copies are available via Amazon.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2003
Format: Mass Market PaperbackVerified Purchase
There is no doubt that this book portrays a dark, frightening universe in which various forces fight for their very survival. Not too different from our world, eh?
What is refreshing about this book is that, unlike most other science fiction writers (and today's newspapers, radio, and government spokesmen!), Cherry does NOT gives us a simplistic view of right/wrong, good/bad, but makes the clear the economic and ideological forces that put whole peoples into opposition. The opening scenes of this book are unforgettable, with panicked civilians driven to riot, violence, and murder. And yet even the most villainous characters are not irrational and clearly have reasons for what they are doing.
I found this a fascinating book, with an intelligently thought out political and economic system. I only wish Cherryh could so clearly explain why WE continue to have violence and riots in OUR world.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2004
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I'm very disappointed that Cherryh's work has not achieved the status that it deserves. But I understand why - she writes well above the level of many readers. While she doesn't win the popularity contests, she obviously has achieved great success working for her audience.
There are plenty of places to find out what this book is about - what I want to discuss is the framework she created to house this book. I once read that Frank Herbert spent many years doing the preperation for writing DUNE, and that's why he was able to continue writing so many books based on the series. Tolkien put immense amounts of time into his universe before he published his first Middle Earth book.
Cherryh has accomplished something similar with this book - the first of the Merchanter series. But this book deals with important human issues - politics, ethics, government, love, relationships, friendship, human rights, environmental issues, etc... - in ways that none of those others do. Her world is gritty and realistic - you can actually envision living in it. And this is the first of many set in this universe.
I've read other reviews claiming it is too complicated with too many characters and too many motivations. Uhm... Okay. The beauty of the book is how she makes this complex world come together and really hum. Amazing. Well worth the effort to read. And not in any way a chore to work your way through.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I selected this piece of science fiction by virtue of its having won the Hugo Award in 1982. The first of a series of books by C. J. Cherryh, much of the time is spent setting the stage and laying out the landscape for future works.
I've read hundreds of science fiction novels throughout the years, in virtually every genre imaginable. I've read the classic authors and many of the newer writers, with varying degrees of satisfaction. To be honest, I wasn't terribly impressed in this instance, either with the quality of the "science" contained therein, or with the underlying story and writing quality itself.
The stage is a universe that has been colonized by Earth through a commercial enterprise referred to as the Company. Ultimately, the colonies grow disenchanted with the Company and form opposition which coalesces around an entity referred to as the Union. Through human engineering, the Union gains the upper hand in the far reaches of space and begins to encroach upon the Company's holdings. To complicate matters, the Earth Fleet has essentially gone bandit and operates under little or no political control. Conflict, as the story begins, centers around the Company held space station and planetary colony at Pell. The indigenous inhabitants of the planet also play a central role.
There is very little "science" involved with the story and what there is can only be deemed lacking. For example, the early narrative refers to a period of 200 years, prior to faster than light travel, in which many space stations are founded in surrounding star systems. Really? Then, faster than light travel arrives onto the scene, and frequent references are made to "jumps" and "scans". In other words, the author can't be bothered by such details as the amount of time and the logistics required to travel to surrounding star systems at less than light speed, or the constraints involved with the "jumps", other than the fact that it is potentially dangerous and makes the travelers nauseous and sluggish.
Bottom line, the book is sorely lacking when compared to many of its contemporaries with respect to the "science" aspect of science fiction. What we're left with is the underlying story itself and frankly, it is not very good. Many times, I was left scratching my head after reading a paragraph, not comprehending what I'd read, especially when the author attempts to take the reader through the battles that erupt between Union and Fleet forces. The author has a problem using confusing and ambiguous pronouns, leaving the reader wondering who he/she is referring to. At other times, the writing presumes a knowledge or understanding of the subject matter which the reader has no reason to possess. For example, there are apparently, in the author's mind, complicated issues involved with interstellar ships "jumping" into areas and the scans used to detect them, involving space/time. Of course, no explanation is attempted; instead the author uses terms and references with the assumption that the reader understands her concept of physics (which, if it matches her space travel conception, has no basis in reality).
In summary, it is simply not very good. I can only surmise that 1982 was a slow year for science fiction.