Feb 28, 2016

Science Fiction Classics: Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh

Image from www.amazon.com   

Downbelow Station is a complicated novel. From the prologue we learn that long ago the Earth Company funded space exploration and built a number of space stations as stepping-stones to the stars. Everything went well for a while, and the company prospered and built more and more bases so humans could travel to distant worlds. They collected taxes etc. to pay for this. At some point the farthest stations began to rebel, and the company built a fleet to reinforce its orders. The far-away stations formed a break-away element, the Union, and war broke out between the Company and Union fleets, with the stationers and merchants caught in the middle.

The story takes place at Pell, on the station orbiting it (Upabove) and a base at planet surface (Downbelow).  Captain Signy Mallory of the company fleet dumps a holdfull of refugees onto Pell station, straining its resources to breaking-point. Angelo Konstantin, the Stationmaster, tries to cope. We follow him and his son Damon on the station and Emilio on-planet. Mallory also dumps prisoner of war Josh Talley on the station. He requests a mindwipe in return for his freedom. Then there’s John Lukas, Konstantin’s rival, working with union agent Jessad. We also have Mazian, leader of the company fleet, and his counterpart in the Union, Seb Azov. Confused yet? I know I was.

On-planet, we also have the indigenous hisa, fluffy big-eyed creatures who speak in broken English. They’re working for the humans, and some of them work on the station. They’re very loyal to the Konstantins.

The story follows Pell station, caught in the middle of the war, riots, and political machinations.

I chose to read Downbelow Station because it was on my list of science fiction classics, and the name reminded me of Babylon 5, one of my favorite TV-shows ever. Turns out that the novel was a major inspiration for B5’s creator J. M. Straczynski. The book also won the Hugo award in 1982. Should be good, right?

Not exactly. I really wanted to like this book, but I found it a tough read. From the beginning, I kept getting the characters mixed up. Mostly I had no idea who was on which side of the conflict or even who I was supposed to be rooting for. There were just too many characters with similar names, none of whom were that memorable. The only ones that stuck were Captain Mallory and Josh, the mind-wipe victim (and the hisa). Most of the time I had to read a few paragraphs/pages until I knew who I was reading about. The end result was that I didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them. Also their motivations were a bit fuzzy to me. Some major plot  twists and revelations just happened in passing, like they were no big deal, which messed with my caring about the characters.

The hisa also rubbed me the wrong way, but this is a matter of personal preference. They were just too cutesy (the way they said ‘love you’ constantly), and I found their speech patterns annoying. And the way the human characters treated them: naming them things like ‘satin’ and ‘bluetooth,’ like they were pets, and exploiting them as workers. Were they even getting paid? A bit too much of the noble-savage trope for my liking.

On the plus side, I did notice the similarities to Babylon 5, so it was interesting to see where the series' creator got his inspiration. The mind-wipe thing was interesting, and the base on Pell, the planet. I also thought the prologue about the Company and Union was intriguing.

A second read-through would probably help, but I didn’t like the characters enough to do that.

So, not a favorite. I wonder if I should try another book from Cherryh, just to give her a fair shot. Maybe something a bit more straight-forward and character-oriented? If anyone has a recommendation, comment away.  

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