Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh
I’ve had C.J. Cherryh‘s 1982 Hugo Award winner Downbelow Station on my TBR list for three decades, and was glad I finally got around to it via Audible Studios, ably narrated by Brian Troxell. It’s an intense, claustrophobic, gritty space opera with a huge cast of hard-nosed characters battling to survive the Machiavellian intrigues of freelance Merchanters, Earth bureaucrats, Company fleet captains, Pell station administrators, Union space forces, secret agents, stationers, and (incongruously) cuddly Downer aliens. It’s a big, complex story, and not easy to follow on audio, but well worth the effort. I emphasize the word effort, because it takes some serious concentration to keep track of all the moving pieces, and Cherryh’s tough, muscular prose and clipped dialog only reveal enough to keep the reader and characters guessing who is friend or foe, when alliances will be suddenly betrayed, and when help may come from unexpected sources.
Downbelow Station opens with some exposition to describe the complex political, economic and migratory history of humanity in the 24th century, to give the reader a modicum of grounding before throwing them into the action immediately afterwards. This is actually the first book in Cherryh’s COMPANY WARS series, each of which are stand-alone but take place in her Alliance-Union universe. In fact, Downbelow Station sets the stage for later events in that world, which are promising for readers who enjoy this book. Having never read one of her books, but having seen so many of them in science-fiction stacks for decades, I knew I would eventually want to try one. Since Downbelow Station won the 1982 Hugo Award, I thought this was the best place to start, and if I liked it I would then tackle her imposing 1989 Hugo Award winner Cyteen.
The cast of characters is so large and the plot so complicated that I struggle to describe it, and also, revealing too much spoils some of the story. Suffice to say that the overarching story is the struggle for power between an increasingly isolationist Earth, the Company that initially prospered by setting up mining and trade operations as humanity spread out to nearby star systems, the independent Merchanters that ply the star ways, the stations themselves, and finally the growing power of the Union, an alliance of outer world colonies that see no need to be shackled to outdated Earth policies. As jump technology is developed, this complex web of economic and political ties is thrown into disarray, and all the parties are forced to vie for independence or supremacy amid shifting loyalties and stratagems.
I appreciated the careful introduction of all the elements in this dance of intrigue. And much like Game of Thrones, Cherryh doesn’t hesitate to eliminate major players at unexpected moments. So when the end comes, it’s pretty impressive, and the last 100 pages feature a dizzying number of twists, double-crosses, and snap decisions that will determine events to come for centuries in the Alliance-Union universe. So I found the payoff to be more than enough to justify the time invested.
One of the main characters, captain Signy Mallory of the Company ship Norway, deserves special mention as one of the toughest and most intense female characters I’ve encountered in space opera. There are some elements of Cordelia Naismith from the MILES VORKOSIGAN series, but several readers have hit the nail on the head by comparing her to Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien. It’s a perfect fit, that combination of grit, dedication to her friends and crew, practicality, and general badass qualities. She is a match for any of the tough guy captains of this ruthless struggle.
The one discordant note in the story, which probably led me to give it 4 stars rather than 5 stars, is the gentle, cuddly, and hairy alien race known as the Hisa, or informally as Downers. These speak in childish, broken English, are peace-loving and gentle, and while they play a role in the book, they just don’t fit this no-holds-barred story of ruthless humans. Their lines really got quite annoying, as they say things like “Konstantin good man, kind to Hisa, come help to us and not hurt, love you.” Sure, they have some analogies to subjugated peoples in human history, but they just didn’t belong in this story.
Overall, I was quite impressed with Downbelow Station and highly recommend it. While there are some fairly dated parts, especially the constant mention of identification papers, documents and signatures, and hypnotic tapes that betray its 1981 origins (as if we developed interstellar space flight but never developed electronic data storage), it is a good start to the COMPANY WARS series, and the larger Alliance-Union universe.
I’ve been meaning to check out her books for many years now too. I even bought The Faded Sun trilogy about a decade ago but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I just looked up this one on Amazon, and the “Publisher has set the price” at $12.99 for the kindle version… for a 34 year old book, that’s some BS right there.
Yeah, $12.99 is pretty steep – I think $4.99 would be more reasonable. They should discount older books to encourage people to give them a try, especially with so many new titles to compete with.