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Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

DownbelowStation(1stEd).jpgFirst of all I want to mention that, in the interests of cutting down on the amount of stuff I have to get rid of later, I read the Kindle edition of Downbelow Station, and I was surprised by how many typos there were. Not sure why it would surprise me that an ebook has so many typos, but I guess I just assume it would be easier to fix in that format.

Anyway, when I read this Hugo-winning novel for the first time back in the '90s, I didn't care for it much. It didn't feel much like science fiction to me, and it still didn't the second time through. Why it doesn't feel like SF is a bit of a puzzle, because it's set on a space station orbiting an alien planet, with a space war raging around it. I guess I'd say it reads like a blockbuster best-seller, by which I mean it's got a huge cast of characters that we move between from chapter to chapter, weaving the story from multiple points of view in epic fashion. I know that's not the deepest analysis, but it just feels like a generic blockbuster novel to me. It's a military story in a science fiction setting, and the military and political intrigue overwhelm the science fictional world-building, to my mind.

It opens with a big wodge of exposition about how Earth gradually started exploring the nearby stars and establishing a trade network mostly via space stations established in orbit around the nearer stars. Well, as I think I said in my review of Merchanter's Luck, I find the concept of interstellar trade kind of ridiculous to begin with, but be that as it may. There is actually some interesting world-building going on in the interstices of this story, having to do with how different the Union culture is from Earth and station/merchanter culture, but the problem is that station/merchanter culture isn't presented in a very interesting way in this book. That's a problem for a book that ends up being the story of the foundation of the merchanter's alliance, where the trading families finally form a political alliance in order to hold their own against the contending Union and Earth powers.

So the war in the book is between Earth and Union, fighting over trade access to the stars that the stations give, with various other factions trapped in between. Most of the action takes place on Pell Station, which orbits a planet with indigenous alien life (the first that humans have discovered out side of Earth), and that's my other big problem with this book. The planet is called Downbelow by the people who live on Pell Station, and the sapient aliens on the planet are called, unironically as far as I can tell, Downers. One of Cherryh's great strengths has always been her depiction of aliens, but the Downers are by far the worst alien race she created. They are twee, furry, noble savages speaking in a horrific pidgin taken out of the worst kind of colonial fiction. They actually seem to be borrowed from Le Guin's "The Word for World Is Forest," which is another anti-colonial work of science fiction that I don't care for much because of the noble savagery of the aliens.

Anyway, the most interesting thread of this very long, very complicated story is a flash of cyberpunk in the form of Josh Talley, who is a character swept up and used as a sex toy by the pitiless fleet captain Signy Mallory. His memories of abuse are so tortured that he asks to have his mind essentially erased, but it turns out (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) that he's actually a deep Union agent created in their labs and implanted with false memories to cover the fact that he's a saboteur. However, he has been so deeply messed with by both Union and Mallory that he believes the deep programming is the false self, and that's what gets partially erased. The truly false memories of being raised by an aunt on a sunny farm on Cyteen are left intact, and Josh is one deeply confused secret agent. The layers of false personality are quite fascinating. I just wish there had been more of that, which is probably why I enjoyed Cyteen a lot more than this one. 40,000 in Gehenna is a far better book too because of the truly weird aliens and the way they turn the humans weird too. Downbelow Station just seems like an overly-busy novel of political intrigue with way too many viewpoint characters for me to keep straight.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 16th, 2016 05:34 pm (UTC)
I tried to reread it a little while ago but didn't get very far into it -- less than a quarter the way through, I think.
May. 16th, 2016 06:12 pm (UTC)
I prefer Merchanter's Luck, in the same universe, which focuses on the struggles of an orphaned merchant kid to keep his family ship.
Some of the same events are flowing around the outside of the much more personal story, which gives one a handle to hang on to in the narrative.
May. 16th, 2016 08:17 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately I read that one before Downbelow Station, which made it more confusing than it probably would have been if I'd gotten the context first. But I would agree that it's a more interesting exploration of Merchanter culture.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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