I really wanted to like this novel. I’ve heard nothing but good things about C. J. Cherryh, and this was one of the novels I’ve been most looking forward to. Unfortunately, this novel felt a bit “by the numbers.” The ‘80s are the peak of the space opera subgenre, and this may be the most traditional space opera I’ve ever read.
Downbelow Station portrays a pivotal event in the history of Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe. In that universe, the cultural differences between Earth (the Alliance) and its numerous interstellar colonies (the Union) have become so vast by the 24th century that a civil war has broken out. The planet of Pell, also known as Downbelow, and its orbiting space station have attempted to remain neutral, but as the war comes to its climax and refugees begin to pour in, neutrality becomes harder and harder to maintain.
Cherryh juggles a lot of plots and characters here very well. There’s the war itself, and we learn about Signy Mallory, the female captain of the Alliance ship Norway. She’s a stern disciplinarian, but also a pragmatist with a strong code of honor. On the station, there’s a rivalry between the Konstantin family who have long run the station and the Lukas family, who have long assisted. There’s a level of dislike and betrayal and as clear a division between good and evil between the two families as there was between the Atreides and Harkonnens in Dune. There are also a few Union spies working in the background. Finally, there’s a sentient (though not especially intelligent) species from Pell called the Hisa. We get some hints of a fairly compelling culture for the Hisa, but they can also be a bit cutesy – they’re small, furry, and like to say “I love you.” Should we blame Cherryh for the Ewoks?
All of these plotlines run in parallel throughout the book and come together quite neatly at the climax. The plotting is fantastic. The characters are very clearly drawn, though maybe just a tad too clearly, as they tend towards cartoonishly good or evil (the one big exception is Mallory, but even she has a very clear and consistent moral stance – just one that can lead to some fairly awful things). That was my biggest problem with the novel – everything was a little too clean and clear. Even the prose, which is perfectly readable, came off as very dry to me. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been reading so much Gene Wolfe lately. Claw of the Conciliator was nominated against Downbelow Station, and I have to say that it was the better novel (and I think this is the first time I’ve taken a Nebula winner over a Hugo winner). Either way, Downbelow Station is a well-executed novel that still left me cold. I’m still looking forward to Cyteen though.
By the way, C. J. Cherryh is really Carolyn Cherry. Like J. K. Rowling, she used her initials to disguise her gender, which further illustrates that the James Tiptree effect hasn’t entirely left us. Unfortunately, I can see why a female writer of this sort of hard science fiction with military sf elements might not want to advertise that they were a woman.