My life in outer space

Downbelow Station – CJ Cherryh (1981)

Downbelow Station (Company Wars, #1)

‘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.

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4 responses

  1. Matthew Vomacka

    This is far from a bad review but (from my perspective) I think it misses some crucial points, and makes a bizarre conclusion regarding whether this needed to be science fiction. I know it’s an old review, but I always like to leave comments regarding things like this.

    It’s true that the fleet’s actions in dumping civilians on Pell can be explained as “doing bad things for the right reasons,” but as the book progresses we see that the fleet might not actually be doing these things for the right reasons. Not only do we know that one of the fleet brass sexually assaulted one of the perspective characters, but that captain may have ultimately done him a favor nonetheless. And, she doesn’t come across as a particularly bad example of the fleet command. Porey, the guy who lands planetside, is a better example of the worst of the fleet. All things considered, I think it’s likely Signy was using Pell as the best possible place to dump the refugees so she would be able to lessen her responsibility to deal with them herself – I wouldn’t be surprised if she indicates as much, but it’s been some time since I read the book.

    If you read the book, not even too carefully, you’ll realize that the Mazianni have been operating under martial law for an extended duration, and have created a lot of problems for parties that attempt to be neutral in the conflict. Though they probably aren’t trying to be the worst they can possibly be, I think they come across as very far from good people pressed into doing bad things only when they need to. As we watch the fleet’s actions, we realize they’re making a power grab here.

    I want to clarify that these comments are supplemented by my later understanding of the universe through reading later Cherryh works, but I thought Signy, Porey, Mazian AND Mazian’s favorite in the fleet (can’t remember his name, but it’s implied he’s got a relationship with Mazian, and I believe Signy exclusively targets him when she backstabs the fleet) all come across as pretty scummy in their way. Porey in particular gets a pretty fleshed out personality in “Hellburner,” (though set before Down Below Station), to the extent that Cherryh might have retroactively made him far more competent (and ruthless) than he was in Down Below Station – not a good thing for Down Below Station in a series context.

    And Mallory is still, overall, a boon to the creation of the Alliance in the series.

    To be clear: I have a relative depth of knowledge compared to you of the entire series, though I haven’t read it all, assuming you didn’t read any of her other works, but I personally feel some of your criticisms show a flawed understanding of DBS itself. I think I walked away with a better understanding of these points than you did when I first read the book than you did – I think so, anyway. (Based on a post I made elsewhere some time ago, that was around April of 2015) I don’t expect you to necessarily be able to respond now, but I wanted to supply an alternate viewpoint.

    In terms of the larger question of whether Down Below Station really needed to be science fiction, I think that’s an interesting question. The Alliance-Union Universe definitely needed to be science fiction, and it appears that Cherryh wrote Down Below Station to introduce the setting. But I think Down Below Station does need to be sci-fi in and of itself, too. The crisis of the refugees on-station, and the planet below – seemingly hospitable for larger numbers of people, but difficult in terms of logistics to use, and still “in development” – creates a choke-point of resources and population flow that wouldn’t be easy to construct on earth. You could have a refugee camp, but I think that inevitably, a depiction of an on-earth environment would end up emphasizing the selfishness of those who aren’t in need, and fail to emphasize problems of necessity.

    The lack of information flow is also crucial. To use your example, it would be difficult to create a “borderline town” that is simultaneously as advanced as Pell and as, in certain ways, as isolated from the Union and the Earth. Reading other Alliance-Union works would give a stronger feeling for this, but I am pretty sure I’d find this idea of a “borderline town” in the civil war as bizarre if down below station was the only book in the series I had read. Something like Berlin during the Cold War would probably be a better approximation, though still pretty far off for different reasons.

    I actually think Down Below Station is one of Cherryh’s weakest works. The characters are largely comparatively uncompelling. I also found the Hisa a pretty weak element of the book. Down Below Station seems to be what people will point to first when talking about her, which makes sense, I suppose, because it’s the first entry in the universe where she wrote a great deal of her fiction. But I also think it’s one of the weakest entries. I don’t know what other sci-fi works were up for an award that year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one out there I would like much better. But, I’m glad DBS did win, because the teacher who recommended it to me might not have known about it without the award.

    Regarding the Hisa, though, it’s probably worth attack the idea that they don’t have a different culture. Not only do they have a different culture off-station, though not deeply explored iirc, they have a different culture on station, which is probably more pronounced (and one of the major exceptions to the suggestion that we don’t get a physical feel for the station). From examples such as this, and their relationship with the elderly Konstantin woman (who is bedridden), we begin to develop an understanding of how they have been shaped substantially by their interactions with humanity, but very much not shaped like humanity. I don’t think Cherryh was interested in exploring the Hisa as an alien culture which excited humanity – that’s why they weren’t “discovered” in Down Below Station, but already known and incorporated into station culture.

    Let me repeat that: the aliens start the book incorporated into an offworld space station, when it looks very unlikely they had ever conducted space travel prior. This should give an idea of how much you missed the point when you expect a focus on the alien’s culture independent of humanity. They’re not a fully distinct culture anymore. They’re like an indigenous population employed in factories and agriculture.

    Pell’s approach to the Hisa appears comparatively benign, but your citing star trek, where the federation (I never watched star trek extensively but I think this is a pretty basic component of the series) has a longstanding policy of not interfering with undeveloped alien cultures again suggests you totally missed the purpose of the Hisa in the book.
    (I’ve heard that Star Trek tends to involve many episodes where the noninterference policy is played with, because it wouldn’t be interesting if it wasn’t.)

    I agree that imagery and description of the station and such are probably not very strong (imagery is the only thing I am likely to skim in a book I enjoy), but I normally don’t look to imagery as a crucial point of written fiction, sci fi or otherwise. Even authors who are typically cited for brilliant imagery, I usually like most for reasons other than imagery. The closest thing in science fiction to an exception for me is Jack Vance, who I would still read if he didn’t use an excellent pulpy sci fi style of imagery. Psychologically compelling scenes are far better. One that comes to mind for me is when the Union guy who got dumped with refugees on Pell is working some menial job, and finds himself slowing his progress on his duties to avoid agitating a fellow worker who gets stressed by seeing him perform much better.

    October 5, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    • Hi

      Thanks for dropping in, and thanks for your comments. As it’s been two and a half years since I read DBS I can’t really respond on the specific arguments you raise with regard to the plot elements.
      I do make clear in my second paragraph, however, that if I had read other books in this series I might have had a different view. The main issue I have with this is that this book won the Hugo Award. Had it not been in the running at all I may again have had a different view. One expects a certain level of quality. You yourself have stated that it is one of her weakest works, so why should it be worthy of winning the Hugo Award ahead of (as you ask) Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Claw of The Conciliator’ and Julian May’s ‘The Many-Coloured Land’, in my opinion books that are infinitely superior to DBS on any level you wish to mention?
      It should also be noted that DBS was not even nominated for the Nebula Award, the shortlist for which is drawn up by other writers and not by any person who happens to have a ticket to the Annual World SF Convention. That’s the Hugo.
      Having said that, until recent years, when there’s been a little controversy over alleged block voting from certain faction, the Hugo voters tend to make good choices. I just don’t believe that it happened on this occasion. There is nothing new or groundbreaking here.
      I fear that I did not make myself clear in my reference to ‘Star Trek’ aliens, which is how I tend to describe the alien creations of authors who make little effort to come up with credible alien life and produce what are essentially, human beings with bumpy faces, but with a different culture and a different language. They breathe oxygen. They are mammals. Male and female. They live on an Earth type planet. It might as well have been Scotland. No attempt at world-building or having a world that was even higher or lower in gravity. This lack of scene setting, as I pointed out, is reflected in the ships and the space station.
      It’s lazy writing basically.
      I can appreciate, from the fact that you’ve taken some considerable effort to defend DBS, that you love this series a great deal, but I hope that you will appreciate that my remit is to give my impression of what is between the particular cover of this particular book. I made the point in my original review that this was marketed as a stand alone novel and should be able to stand its own ground on those terms. Your experience of other novels in this series is, with all due respect, irrelevant, since they are not the subject of the review.
      However, it’s just my opinion. I’m very happy that you have yours and that you found something wonderful in this book. This is clearly my loss.

      October 6, 2016 at 10:10 pm

  2. Matthew Vomacka

    Let me say that when I saw DBS is comparatively weak for Cherryh, I really, really like some of her other books. So don’t take me saying that as evidence that I think it’s not worthy of a hugo.

    For the record, now that I’ve looked and seen that Claw was nominated for the hugo the same year as DBS, I think Claw is definitely better than DBS, and should have won the hugo over it, assuming the criterion for winning the hugo is “I think that book is better.” Pardon the informality.

    I am not finished with the book I currently think will turn out to be Cherryh’s best, and that book has a single sequel. Right now I like it the best of any book. Don’t think that means it is necessarily a good read if you liked Claw – Cyteen is a relatively conventional book compared to Claw, and honestly, much of what I’ve read but Borges is conventional compared to Claw and Wolfe in general.

    I didn’t read May’s “The Many Colored Land.” I know I’ve heard “Julian May” often enough to know they’re an important person in sci fi. Can’t comment otherwise. If they’re worthy of being mentioned as a wolfe competitor that’s a good thing.

    I’ll condense my criticism to the point you stood by that I feel is incorrect after half-agreeing with something you said. Generally, I still don’t feel that your arguments that DBS could have taken place in an on-earth context, or a non-sci fi context, are true, and I know the examples I gave largely are in DBS, not in later works by the author.

    I’m not letting you off on having not read her other works. No. I mean, it’s totally cool you didn’t read any more. What I mean is that I really confined a great deal of what I said to things that are evident in DBS. I read DBS recently enough to know some of the things I thought about the book when I did read it. For instance, Mazian makes an actual appearance in Down Below Station and in no other Cherrryh book I’ve read, and I know my opinion of him is weighted a lot based on his appearance there.

    In fact, the book I’ve where the fleet gets the closest to being dealt with extensively – Hellburner – probably paints the fleet in a better light than DBS, barring Porey. Again: Hellburner to some extent contradicts my take on the fleet from DBS, as well as yours. I realize you didn’t talk a lot about the fleet personnel in your last post, so you if you’re like “who are those guys again” that’s a fair question – but they should have impacted your view on the fleet when you did read the book.

    If you’d argue that the fleet brass are so confined from low level fleet personnel that they’re not indicative of the low level fleet personnel, I might admit I don’t remember the demeanor of the unnamed fleet personnel and that any arguments I have that really, the rank and file do have a strong relationship with command…I do believe there’s evidence of that in DBS (specifically when looking at Signy’s interactions with her crew) but that’s relatively fuzzy to me compared to evidence I most remember for this is drawn from stuff outside DBS.

    Regarding the Hisa,
    I didn’t just criticize your bit on the hisa because of the line about star trek, and actually I think the line about star trek was a pretty small portion of it. Just because you didn’t mean the star trek line in the way I pointed out it could be taken, doesn’t mean my criticism regarding the importance of the Hisa, and they reason why the author probably chose them to write them the way they were written, isn’t worth considering – my use of the star trek thing was an illustration of a point that contradicts other things you said.

    Identifying that the Hisa have a lot of similarities to humanity and thus the author is exhibiting lazy writing is a pretty mediocre criticism to level at a book, I think. Regardless, you seem to have missed the ways in which the Hisa have already been affected by humanity barging into their environment. The fact that Hisa have been taken off planet, and that there are areas of the station chiefly inhabited by Hisa. In short, we see aliens integrated into space travel and life in space and a complex human conflict while having a very, very tenuous ability to affect that conflict.

    The idea that we can find things in sci fi that are astonishingly new, great, and foreign to us is not a bad one. The idea that an off earth environment that smacks of earth is a product of bad writing…is dubious. Do you have more to say than that on the Hisa? Sci-fi isn’t just a travel brochure. If the author sets a mostly familiar scene, that doesn’t mean it isn’t being used well. If you need scenery that is new and groundbreaking because it is described as new and groundbreaking in a physical way, that is fine, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used well.

    It’s also worth saying that I remember that the Hisa have a mating cycle of some kind, not precisely resembling humanity’s. I guess that’s something that could be found in other animals on earth, and thus, not a difference from humanity acceptable in an alien in science fiction.

    Anyway, If you want aliens that are very different from humans, Cherryh and plenty of other sci-fi authors do that. What’s the flaw in aliens that resemble us?

    I really don’t remember the exact specifications of what the Hisa could and couldn’t breathe, but I know humans had to wear breathers on the planet, and Hisa had to wear breathers on pell station. And Hisa could take off breathers when in their own dwellings in Pell station. The first is most important – since humans need breathers on pell, and hisa evolved on pell, most likely hisa do not need breathers, even if we see no explicit mention that they don’t. Maybe they both breath oxygen at different concentrations, but there’s definitely a difference in the atmospheres that are healthy for their respiratory systems. By the way, I think there’s actually a scientific reasoning why an organism might breathe oxygen, due to how it bonds, reacts, etc, with other elements, just like with carbon, so even if the Hisa don’t breathe oxygen at all, it wouldn’t be correct to criticize an author because their aliens did breathe oxygen. Are you sure you got a good read on the quality of scene setting in DBS if you didn’t notice this? I tend to not weight heavily on imagery and I remembered this, and other things. Yellow unbreatheable smog (paraphrase of a line I noticed from an on-planet human) isn’t something I normally think of when I think of Scotland, though maybe pesticides, gloomy british weather and other factors actually make it a regular occurrence.

    I actually didn’t remember if the above was true, I checked, and it is, and is mentioned multiple times in the book.

    Right now, arguments regarding whether life exists outside of earth – that I’ve seen – frequently revolve around statistical analyses starting with questions like how many stars there are in the universe, how many planets each star has, etc – breaking down towards a question such as “are there, or have there been, planets like earth out there, that would be friendly to life?” That isn’t to say that alien life must be found on a planet like ours, that life has to resemble what we think life will be. And maybe we have enough evidence now to know there almost certainly isn’t life much at all like us out there. Maybe we had enough when DBS was written, but we didn’t know how to interpret it properly. There’s a lot we don’t know.

    But there really don’t seem to be grounds for saying, as far as I know, almost 30 years after DBS, that there can’t be life that’s rather like us, after all, out there either. Even if you can counter that argument in a scientific manner, I’m not sure depicting life like humanity would be a bad move in terms of writing, but if you can’t even counter it on grounds of “science makes it an unreasonable possibility to consider there are species like us” I don’t know how your argument passes muster.

    The Hisa aren’t revisited in any Cherryh book I’ve read past a few sentences, and I think Pell’s only presence in the books I’ve read was for a short time in “Merchanter’s Luck.” Almost all of these arguments are just things I remember from DBS.

    If it matters, I don’t really like the individual Hisa as characters. This is a petty criticism on my part, but I find their cutesy speech aggravating. My biggest problem is actually something you didn’t have a problem with – the characters. I mean, they are well fleshed out, and I wouldn’t say many are badly written, but I don’t feel that many really jump out as excellent. The union guy (Josh Talley?) who ends up a refugee on Pell is the most important/recurring character who I think is rather well written. I also thought the fleet officers were mostly fairly complex and interesting, and I remember liking the Union VIP (Azov??? I really don’t remember his name) but they get very little screentime relative to the length of the book, and I don’t even know if I’m justified in thinking Azov was well written. (While checking about breathers, I found out Azov also goes by Ayres)

    “It should also be noted that DBS was not even nominated for the Nebula Award, the shortlist for which is drawn up by other writers and not by any person who happens to have a ticket to the Annual World SF Convention. That’s the Hugo.”

    I really had no idea of the relevance of this, and was going to say little more than that, but after a bit of incidental work that led me to realize that Claw (and May’s book you mentioned) competed against DBS, I also found out that books by L Ron Hubbard made it into the hugo awards, including into the final ballot. I’m guessing this is why u hatin on the u go 😦 , and it’s a shame if something like that happened with DBS, or “against” Wolfe.

    I looked at the nebula winners and nominees and of those I know, many more I liked than disliked (Wolfe, Calvino, Leguin) but I also see a couple I think are bad.

    Honestly, whether DBS deserved the hugo is not a big matter for me, but if your reviews involve themselves in the context of the awards, etc, in general than I understand why you’re noting this.

    October 8, 2016 at 4:01 am

    • Thank you. I can not comment any further on this I am sorry as I now have little recollection of the novel and can only go by my original review. I had no problem it seems with the characters and the plot. I just found the environments a little dull and as I recall got no enjoyment from reading it. One can’t enjoy everything I guess.
      I do accept your point about Pell’s atmosphere. I do make a point of reading a book thoroughly and writing the review within a couple of days of reading so I would have been aware of that at the time. I don’t mention the atmosphere in the review, which is what I am basing my comments on, so I was wrongly presuming an oxygen atmosphere.
      Awards are a bit like Oscars. Sometimes there’s a political element, or maybe some favouritism toward older authors who produced brilliant work in their day and have been living for years on writing sequels to their past glories. I don’t think either of us will agree with some of the shortlists of the Nebula or the Hugo, which is how it should be. I’m not a big fan of fans voting, as you will inevitably sometimes get an X-Factor result where people are voting for a good read rather than a quality novel. There’s a big difference. You see this on Goodreads quite a lot where people post listings people can vote on, such as the top twenty SF novels and inevitably, despite the creators saying SF novels only, you will still get people voting in Harry Potter novels or Twilight novels. Even restricting it to SF some will insist that the the latest Star Wars novel or the Hunger Games is superior to HG Wells’ ‘War of The Worlds’.
      Then again, that’s the price we pay for democracy I guess.

      October 8, 2016 at 12:33 pm

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