Downbelow Station – CJ Cherryh (1981)
‘THE CLASSIC NOVEL OF INTERSTELLAR WAR
The Beyond started with the Stations orbiting the stars nearest Earth. The Great Circle the interstellar freighters travelled was long. But not unmanageable, and the early stations were dependent on Mother Earth. The Earth Company which ran this immense operation reaped incalculable profits and influenced the affairs of nations.
Then came Pell, the first station centered around a newly-discovered living planet. The discovery of Pell’s World forever altered the power balance of The Beyond. Earth was no longer the anchor which kept this vast empire from coming adrift, the one living mote in a sterile universe.
But Pell was just the first living planet. Then came Cyteen, and later others, and a new and frighteningly different society grew in the farther reaches of space. The importance of Earth faded and the Company reaped ever smaller profits as the economic focus of space turned outward. But the powerful Earth Fleet was still a presence in The Beyond and Pell station was about to become the final stronghold in a titanic struggle between the vast, dynamic forces of the rebel Union and those who defended Earth’s last desperate grasp at the stars.
Blurb from the DAW US paperback edition. Date Unknown.
It’s hard to see why this rather militaristic and conventional novel of corporate war was a winner of the Hugo Award. It’s not a bad novel, but it does seem to be a late reworking of the staple American theme of Democracy vs. Communism, or rather Capitalism vs. Communism, with a neutral space station, Pell, stuck in the middle. It adds little to the debate.
To be fair to Cherryh it is difficult to judge this novel out of context of others in this particular Milieu, but as this work is marketed as a ‘stand alone’ novel the reader should be able to read it as such. As part of a larger body of work it might well be viewed differently, but this book fails to work as single novel.
In the far future, various space-stations have been established around other stars, mining ore and other valuables for the powerful Earth Company. Eventually, as life-bearing planets are discovered, the stations find they need to rely less on Earth for vital supplies and so is born the rebel Union (a name heavy with Socialist resonance, and US historical connections) which is determined to resist Earth’s governance. Earth’s military fleet has gone rogue under the leadership of Commander in Chief Mazian and is determined to resist the Union at all costs.
The point of ultimate strategic importance is the station Pell, orbiting a planet with an indigenous sapient race of its own, the hisa.
It may be a deliberate device on Cherryh’s part that we don’t learn a great deal about the Union. We never see the Union through the Union’s eyes. It is only seen from the point of view of its enemies, or those who are trying to negotiate. We know that the Union have done bad things, such as cosmetic genetic enhancement/modification and cloning, and using personality wiping technology in interrogations. But we only know this because we are told by Earth/Company forces.
If this is a deliberate device employed to make some point about propaganda and how the average citizen views the enemy during conflict, then fair enough, but I suspect otherwise.
On the other hand, the Company forces are put into positions where they are forced to do bad things for the right reasons. The Fleet, for instance, rescue many people from Stations which have been attacked or destroyed, but are forced to dump them at Pell where the authorities have no choice but to quarantine the refugees in cramped and hellish quarters.
Cherryh’s characters are well fleshed out and the structure of the society thought through and detailed, but one never gets the atmosphere of the station, or indeed of any of the environments which appear in the book. In a novel like this one expects a certain texture, to be able to smell the inside of a warship that has been in space for years, or to see the surface of the alien planet in one’s mind’s eye.
The Planet Pell, for instance, from which the station obtains food and supplies might as well be a stretch of rural Scotland for all the description of it we are given. It has grass and bushes and it rains. We are not told what crops are grown there or how they are harvested, although there are ‘mills’, and even the hisa are not alien to any real degree. They are standard ‘Star Trek’ aliens, in this case benign ape-like humanoids with a culture which is never explored in any depth.
Likewise, the station itself fails to convince as an environment, being little more than roughly sketched backdrops of rooms and corridors. There is little here that suggests any form of culture or anything which differentiates these people from those of the time when it was written. If one compares it to, for instance, Pohl’s ‘Gateway’ written five years earlier, one can see how Pohl has combined in-depth characterisation with a solid believable setting and real SF elements,
Ultimately one has to ask whether this is Science Fiction at all since, apart from the few small elements suggested by the culture of the Union, the whole story could be set during the American Civil War in some borderline town.