When bestselling and award-winning SFF author C.J. Cherryh was recently named the 32nd SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master, I knew I had to to read and review something she had written. I own a few Cherryh titles, but they're in storage somewhere and I couldn't find them. Perusing various threads on message boards, I discovered that a majority of the author's fans consider Downbelow Station and Cyteen to be her best novels to date. And I would like to thank the nice folks at Daw Books for hooking me up with a copy of the former.
I elected to go for that one because, even though it's part of a series, the book reads like a stand-alone. In addition, Downbelow Station won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1982 and it was named one of the Top 50 science fiction novels of all time by Locus Magazine. My only concern was that it might not have aged well. Originally published in 1981, the book is now 35 years old. And unlike fantasy, older scifi titles often tend to lose a lot of their luster as time goes by.
Not so with Downbelow Station, I'm pleased to report. True, some of the technology is a bit obsolete. But it can stand on its own and give most recent space opera novels a run for their money. All in all, in terms of plot and characterization, it's an excellent read!
Here's the blurb:
Pell's Station, orbiting the alien world simply called Downbelow, had always managed to remain neutral in the ever escalating conflict between The Company, whose fleets from Earth had colonized space, and its increasingly independent and rebellious colony worlds. But Pell's location on the outer edge of Earth's defensive perimeter makes her the focal point in the titanic battle of colony worlds fighting for independence. A legend among sci-fi readers, C. J. Cherryh‘s Union-Alliance novels, while separate and complete in themselves, are part of a much larger tapestry—a future history spanning 5,000 years of human civilization. Here is the 20th anniversary edition of Downbelow Station, the book that won Cherryh a Hugo Award for Best novel in 1982. A blockbuster space opera of the rebellion between Earth and its far-flung colonies, it is a classic science fiction masterwork.
For years and years, space was explored by the Earth Company, a private corporation which became extremely wealthy and powerful. What is known as the Beyond began with space stations orbiting the stars nearest Earth. And those early stations were emotionally and politically dependent on the Earth Company. A number of star systems were found to lack planets suitable for colonization, so space stations were built in orbit instead, each of them a stepping-stone for further space exploration. Then, Pell's World was discovered to be habitable and Pell Station was built. This newly discovered planet altered the power balance of the Beyond forever, as Earth was no longer the anchor that kept this incredibly vast empire together. And Pell was just the first living planet. Then came Cyteen and others, and a new society grew in the farther reaches of space. Earth's importance continued to fade and the Earth Company's profits continued to diminish as the economic focus of space turned outward. When Earth began to lose control of its more distant stations and worlds, the Earth Company Fleet was sent to enforce its will in the Beyond. This led to a prolonged war with the breakaway Union, based at Cyteen. Caught between the two factions are the stationers and the merchanters who crew the freighters that maintain interstellar trade between planets and stations. And now, Pell Station suddenly becomes the last stronghold with ties to Earth as the rebel Union and the Earth Company Fleet battle to either gain control of it or destroy it.
The action takes place during the final days of the war, as Earth Company Captain Signy Mallory's warship, Norway, is leading a ragtag group of ships fleeing from Russell's and Mariner Stations toward Pell. Other convoys arrive from other stations destroyed or lost to Union forces, which leads to an enormous refugee crisis as the unending flood of unexpected refugees strains station resources to the breaking point. Although the book was published more than three decades ago, the main plot is decidedly actual, what with the Syrian refugee crisis making the news every other day for the last year or so. Downbelow Station is essentially a study of the psychological, social, financial, and logistic impacts caused by such an influx of unwanted refugees within the extremely limited confines of a space station and an inhospitable planet. This is a dense and intelligent novel, slow-moving at times, but never dull.
The characterization is interesting because it features a cast of protagonists who are at odds with each others. The Konstantins are one of the oldest families of Pell, a force since the creation of the station. Do-gooders to a fault and often naïve (think Justin Trudeau and his ilk), they will find themselves faced with numerous dilemmas as they try to to cope with the refugees and the Earth Fleet. Though you sometimes want to bitch-slap them for seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses, Angelo, Damon (and his wife Elene), and Emilio are well-defined and three-dimensional characters. Their nemesis, also from a long-established family and eternal rivals of the Konstantins, is Jon Lukas. Against more or less everything the Konstantins stand for, he will stop at nothing to become Stationmaster. The Fleet's point of view is mostly expressed by Captain Signy Mallory, on her own and through her dealings with fellow Fleet officers, especially the brilliant commander Conrad Mazian. Joshua Talley, former Union man with no memory of who he is, is another interesting protagonist, especially when the truth about his identity is revealed. Vassily Kressich, though not an engaging character himself, as a refugee offers one of the most compelling POVs of the novel because he gives readers a glimpse of the crisis from the other side of the fence. Life in the Q, the Quarantine Zone, is getting worse as more refugees arrive on station and Cherryh did an unbelievable job depicting the desperation and the horrors everyone must face, especially once Pell is placed under martial law. The Hisa, furry creatures native of Pell, are a cute addition at the beginning, but their importance to the resolution of the plot becomes more obvious as the story progresses. Add to that Union agents and military officers, Earth Company representatives, and merchanters, and you have yourself an absorbing and diverse cast of men and women which allows readers to see events unfold through the eyes of a disparate bunch of protagonists.
As mentioned, Downbelow Station is not a fast-paced affairs. Although there are a number of space battles, it's not an action-packed book. It's more of a cerebral read, as Pell Station must deal with the refugee influx and the fact that it has now become the prize in a war between the Earth Fleet and the Union. Political, social, commercial, and psychological issues are at the heart of this multilayered tale. And even though the plot can move slowly at times, the story is never dull. It may take some time for certain plotlines to start to make sense, but the reader is never lost.
If, like me, you'd like to discover why C. J. Cherryh was named the SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master of science fiction, Downbelow Station definitely is the book for you! And since many fans consider Cyteen to be even better, I now have to get my hands on that novel!