Downbelow Station, C. J. Cherryh (DAW, 1981)
C. J. Cherryh’s masterful counterpart to Cyteen finally puts most of the elements of that vast and complex Alliance-Union fictional universe into place, at least for me. I have to mention that I first read Cyteen, understood it all (it did make very little mention of non-Union story elements, such as the Alliance, so that was a blessed non-issue), then tried Downbelow Station and had to stop mid-stride: none of it made sense. Until I read Merchanter’s Luck, that is, which takes a merchanter who is captain and sole crew of his little ship and makes him meet a gal from a giant merchanter ship of hundreds of families, and lets his education commence…and that of the reader. These few books, I believe, are the key to understanding Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe. Without the pain. One should start with Downbelow Station (there is a primer at its beginning) and Merchanter’s Luck, followed by Cyteen and its direct sequel Regenesis.
So what makes this book worth reading? The characters, of course. This is Cherryh after all.
So we have Signy Mallory, the she-bitch captain of the carrier Norway, a little-described monster of a ship, one of a few built by Earth to put the far-away rebellious stations in their place. The novel centers on one of these stations, Pell Station, which orbit’s Pell’s World, which the station inhabitants call Downbelow, and thus colloquially refer to their own station as Downbelow Station. (Got that? Multiply this by a hundred, forget to add these bits to the primer at the beginning of the novel, and you might see where I got confused. And these are just the names…) Mallory is honor bound to obey her leader, Conrad Mazian, who reports to the Earth Company, Cherryh’s Weyland-Yutany of sorts, which runs Earth and wants everyone else to follow suit.
As the novel starts Pell Station is delivered a poisoned gift from Mazian: thousands upon thousands of refugees from evacuated stations. This influx informs the reader upon the station’s fragility as it taxes its politics and economy, and the rights it confers its citizens. Witness to the station’s subsequent slow disintegration is Mallory, who finds herself becoming a tiny less bitchy than usual as she gleans vast political plans in motion around her and feels powerless to effect them. On the station’s and planet’s side we’re also served Pell’s two prodigy couples, the station-master’s two sons and their quite formidable spouses.
On this background splashes infiltrators, traitors, death, revolution, and in fine Cherryh tradition a subplot of gentle aliens from Downbelow – the downers – and how longterm interactions with humans changes the latter for the better, a concept she is fond of and explored well in Forty Thousand in Gehenna.
But not all is rosy: some have commented on her difficult prose, and I strongly agree, but prefer to leave such analysis to the reader. I for one do not find it deleterious to the integrity of her works, if perhaps a bit annoying at times, making her writing slightly less enjoyable than it should have been. It’s not a deal breaker for me.
Also know that her vision of technology is far from current cutting-edge SF storytelling: her computers are static voice and key-accessed devices, there is seemingly no networking or decentralized archives of information, no cybernetics, or artificial intelligences. It is not a throwback to the 50s, in my opinion, but rather a stripping down of all non-essential storytelling elements, with her focusing on what she likes and knows. In that optic her technologies are not described nor do they need to be. One good example of this is the carrier Norway, such an important ship for which we do not know any capabilities besides her speed, crew complement, and that it carries four or so support vessels. But I’ve never wanted more details on these things, for they are ultimately inconsequential to her stories.
All and all, these four fantastic books – Downbelow Station, Merchanter’s Luck, Cyteen and Regenesis – comprise a powerful quartet you’ll never forget. Plus there’s plenty of add-ons if you wish to continue within the universe: Forty Thousand in Gehenna, Rimrunners, Finity’s End, and Tripoint, the last three which I have still to read. Goodies for those cold nights.