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Downbelow Station (Alliance-Union Universe) Paperback – December 2, 2008
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Praise for Downbelow Station:
Winner of the 1982 Hugo Award for Best Novel
"Cherryh has created her strongest character and her best novel in a story of space exploration, colonization and war." —Questar
"Full of imagination, action, and understandable, sympathetic characters...." —Analog
“The well-drawn variety of backgrounds and motivations of the characters is the work’s strength.” —VOYA
“A solid, vividly realized background; excellent characterization of humans and aliens; and an ability to keep a story moving… Intelligent space adventure, conceived and executed on a grand scale.” —Booklist
“Downbelow Station is a fascinating, complex deep-space-war political novel with a lot of subtle twists.” —Fantasiae
About the Author
C. J. Cherryh planned to write since the age of ten. When she was older, she learned to use a typewriter while triple-majoring in Classics, Latin, and Greek. With more than seventy books to her credit, and the winner of three Hugo Awards, she is one of the most prolific and highly respected authors in the science fiction field. Cherryh was recently named a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America. She lives in Washington state. She can be found at cherryh.com.
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Cherry's writing style also isn't for everyone. She tends not to explain things right away, and a lot of the storytelling is through terse, often jargon-laden dialogue. Often the context or significance is explained later as the story or character is developed. I tend to look at this as a feature, but some people are turned off by the lack of exposition.
Downbelow Station sets up the entire Alliance-Union universe that comprised the bulk of her writing (in spite of the fact that some books published earlier are also considered part of that universe). By necessity its' scope is very broad, and there's an awful lot of characters and factions to keep track of. To me, it was sort of like Game of Thrones in space, except that there's no sex with underage girls and there's no chance the author is going to die before the story is finished. The story takes a while to really get going in part because it's got to set this grand stage. In particular, the first chapter is a somewhat dry but well-written summary of the three centuries of history leading up to the events of the novel.
In short, slower-than-light travel was how humans originally began exploring the stars. Most of the systems had no habitable worlds so self-sufficient space stations were the norm until two habitable worlds, called Pell's World (or simply "Downbelow" by the character's in the novel) and Cyteen are discovered. Pell is inhabited by sentient but primitive aliens known as the Hisa, so it's never seriously colonized. Cyteen, however, has no intellgent local life and, contrary to the orders of the distant Earth Company, the world is settled.
Eventually, faster-than-light travel is established, and the faster communications between Earth and it's far-flung stations leads to some complications. The Earth Company wants to exert more control on what it sees as its company assets, while the people who have been living in those assets for generations tend to think of them as their own property. In particular the people living on distant Cyteen and its nearby stations have gotten pretty damn strange by Earth standards. Trade disputes turn into low-grade warfare, and eventually snowball into full-blown interstellar warfare.
The story of Downbelow station is told through the leaders of the various factions that interact with each other. Those factions and the characters that represent them are:
The Earth Company. This is the large corporation that apparently had a monopoly on space travel. Due to politics on Earth the Company hasn't had any real involvement in the war since building the fleet. Now they've sent a delegation to Pell which is demanding transport further into "the Beyond." Segust Ayres heads up the team, and the chapters with the company delegates are from his point of view.
The Fleet: The Earth Company Fleet once numbered 50 captial warships ("carriers" in the book's parlance), at the beginning of the novel they are now reduced to 15 ships. The Fleet has been on its own for most of the war, getting very little in the way of guidance or material support from the Earth Company. They've mostly been resorting to hit & run tactics, with ship captains acting individually until the events of the novel unfold. The two main Fleet Character's are it's daring commander, Conrad Maizan, and Signy Mallory, the ruthless commander of the Norway and the 3rd most senior officer of the Fleet.
The Union: Centered on Cyteen, the Union is portayed as relatively alien. In order to increase their population base they cloned large numbers of soldiers, and in general their culture seems to be one of intense centralization and control. The Union characters are Seb Azov, the Union's military commander, Josh Talley, a marooned Union starship crewman, and Jessad, a Union covert agent.
The Pell Stationers: Pell Station is the largest of the star-stations, and while they have a decently habitable world below them they have chosen not to have more than a token presence on the surface due to their policy of non-interference with the Hisa. Pell Station is run by two families: the Konstantins and the Lukases, who are intense political rivals. The Konstantins are headed by Angelo and Alicia (an invalid and the sister of Jon Lukas), and their sons are Damon and Alicia. Damon is married to Elen Quen, who is from a prominent Merchanter family. The Lukases are primarily represented by Jon Lukas. The stations have tried to stay officially neutral in the war, although they rely on the Fleet for protection.
Q Section: The survivors of the other Company star-stations that have been evacuated by the Fleet and sent to Pell. Due to the fact that one of the other stations was destroyed by sabotage the Konstantins put them in quarantine (or "Q") until they can be properly identified and any Union agents are weeded out. Q section is nominally led by Vassily Kressich, a refugee who's really a puppet for the criminal gang that actually runs Q.
The Merchanters: "Merchanter" is the name for the family-run trading ships that ply the various stations. The Merchanters have a gypsy-like lifestyle: the live most of their lives on their starships and only interact with the stations to trade, recreation, and to add to their gene pool. Elen Quen is the primary merchanter character. The rest of her family is a casualty to the war, she survived because she elected to have a child with Damon Konstantin. The Merchanters are also officially neutral, even though they technically did start the war when they resisted Union attempts to seize their ships and called for Company help.
The Hisa: Small, furry, primitive humanoids native to Downbelow. Called "Downers" by the humans. They have a very peaceful, relatively non-materialistic culture. The Konstantins have had a very "hands off" approach to the Hisa and their world. They only maintain a small human presence on the planet (mostly farms to support the station and trade foodstuffs with the merchanters and fleet), and "hire" Hisa workers to help out with the planet-side base as well as helping with maintenance on the station. The Lukases would like to exploit the Hisa more, but are often blocked by the Konstantins from doing so. The main Hisa characters are referred to by the names given to them by the humans: Satin, Bluetooth, and Lily. They are probably the least well-developed of Cherry's aliens, and mainly serve to illustrate the various personality traits and motivations of the human characters.
As the story opens, the war is clearly winding down. Signy Mallory is leading a refugee convoy to Pell to unceremonously dump the survivors of two stations (Mariner and Russell). At Mallory's urging, Angelo Konstantin set's up a quarantine section fot the refugees because the survivors are traumatized, may contain one or more saboteurs (Mariner's was "blown"), and certainly contain criminal elements. She also finds out there's a delegation present from the Earth Company, which is demanding she take them closer to the battlefront. Mallory refuses, warns the Konstantins that more refugees are coming, and leaves. At the same time, there is a changing of the guard on the human outpost on Downbelow. Emilio Konstantin is replacing Jon Lukas as the head of the outpost, Lukas returns to the station just as these destabilizing influences arrive, and sees an opportunity to better his position or at least make sure he loses less than the Konstantins.
What follows is a series of events and rising tension between the various factions as it's clear the Fleet is losing the war rather rapidly, and increasingly acts in predatory ways towards the stationers and merchanters it was originally supposed to protect. It's quite clear Union wants to control the entire Beyond (the area outside of Earth's solar system) and is willing to do anything to achieve that goal. The Merchanters and Stationers are trying to hold on to what they've got as the situation unravels, with the latter suffering further because of the conflicting interests of the Konstantins, Lukases, and Q Section. Added to this are the goals of the Earth Company, which are not necessarily in the best interests of anyone else.
As I said before, the story starts somewhat slowly, but I found the novel's climax rather satisfying and several of the key characters rather compelling. One of the things I like about Cherryh's characterizations is that while the various characters often have very strong convictions or motivations for what they do, there isn't any sort of "black and white" morality and her characters tend to be rather nuanced. This isn't to say that her work is nihilistic, but that it tends to read more like real-world history and not at all like a morality play.
Too bad the editors of the Kindle edition just called it in. I have never seen so many typos in a single book, but it goes beyond just that. There are multiple places in the book where the wrong character name is used- in one chapter I was horribly confused as to how characters managed to magically transport themselves from the surface to the space station, and then half way through the chapter they start using the right names again. Dialogue is ridiculously hard to follow because they shove multiple characters lines into the same paragraph with nothing to distinguish one from another.
This was so bad that I'm planning on asking for a refund. I wish everyone would read this book, but for your own sake buy the paperback instead of the kindle edition.
Some, like Russell's or Mariner, were evacuated under fire. Refugees arrived at Pell crowded aboard ships bringing panic and mobs. Without asking, the warships of the Company Fleet dump evacuees here. Foreboding dominates the text. Damon, one of the Konstantin family (who run Pell), comforts his wife:
' ...He waited, hurting for her, and after a moment came and took her in his arms. She gave a short sigh. "They're gone," she said. And a moment later another short gasp and a release. "Blown with Mariner. Estelle's [her family's ship] gone, with everyone aboard. No possible survivors. Sita saw her go; they couldn't get undocked...all those people trying to get aboard. Fire broke out. And that part of the station went, that's all. Exploded, blew the nose shell off."
Fifty-six aboard. Father, mother, cousins, remoter relatives. A world unto itself, Estelle. He had his own, however damaged. He had a family. Hers were dead. ' (pp 42-3) This is imagery of civilians caught in crossfire.
Early in the book, you meet the hisa [proper noun, never capitalized] who are just so cuddly, while being the dependable workforce from the planet named Downbelow. It has so many overcast days that these natives worship the Sun, and compete for a chance to work on the station and view Sun in its' glory. Satin and Bluetooth take the shuttle up:
' The motion of the ship changed; they held each other a moment in fear, but this men had warned them of, and they had heard that there was a time of great strangeness. They laughed, and joined, and ceased, giddy and delirious. They marveled at the bit of blossoming twig which floated by them in the air, which moved when they batted at it by turns. She reached carefully and plucked it from the air, and laughed again, letting it free. "This is where Sun lives," Bluetooth surmised.... ' (p. 136)
Each character has a name, and a part to play in this drama. I wondered how the Captains commanding the warships could be so homicidal; they are almost as frightening as those of their enemy, the Union. The impact is greatest when both parties engage in a siege using the station as a base, and plans are made to destroy it when the Company ships depart. Separately, the Konstantins cajole or face down the players. [The editor did not notice Bluetooth here taking part in action on both the planet and station simultaneously. Minus one star.]
The writing is couched in slang; certain crises develop upon sudden un-docking of ships. This destabilizes the station and threatens the lives of those aboard. That, and a few references to needing tranquilizers for FTL flight, require the reader to pay close attention as we careen toward a surprise ending. (Minus one star.)
This is a bleak vision of the venues experienced by Solar Clipper crews in Quarter Share (Trader's Tales From The Golden Age Of The Solar Clipper) (Volume 1).