Wed
Dec 3 2008 2:56pm

“Earth is one world”: C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station

Downbelow Station was published in 1981 and won the Hugo in 1982. It is in many ways the central book of the Union-Alliance series. It’s about the Company Wars. Most of the books in the series are dealing with the aftermath of those wars, flotsam and jetsam left in their wake. Downbelow Station is central, it has many points of view (many of them important people), and it’s about the end of the war and the formation of the Alliance. It has a marvellous perspective on humanity in the wider universe. I have to admit, though, it’s a hard book to like.

There’s a story that after Cherryh had written this book, someone told her every scene had to do three things (any three things), so she went through and removed all the scenes that only did one or two, without replacing them with anything. I don’t suppose for a moment that this really happened, but it’s one of those legends that’s truer than the facts. Downbelow Station is a dense, complex book written in a terse, futuristic style, from multiple points of view, some of them alien and many of them unpleasant. It feels disorienting and slightly disconnected and as if something somewhere has been left out. It’s definitely immersive, and the history is real enough to bite, but even on a re-read it isn’t a book I can sink into. I bounced off it the first time I tried to read it, and even now it’s my least favourite and the one I only read when I’m doing a full re-read of the whole series. Again, I don’t think this is a good place to start. (Coming soon: a post on some places I do think would be good to start!)

All of Cherryh’s characters are ambiguous, but nowhere more than here, where there are so many of them. The plot is a complex maneuvering of factions and realignment of interests. There are space battles, and there are economics of space stations. There’s a compelling beginning where a warship turns up with freighters full of desperate refugees that have to be accommodated at the space station without warning. And there are all these factions and points of view.

The Mazianni are a Company fleet that have been fighting too long. They’re exhausted, hard as nails, and can’t stop. Signy Mallory, one of their captains, is ruthless, competent, deadly... and really not very nice.

The Konstantins are nice. They run Pell, a space station circling an alien planet and clinging to its independence at a time when Earth is giving up space to Union, seen here as unmitigatedly terrifying and appalling. They’re definitely nice, all of them—we get three Konstantin points of view, Angelo, Emelio and Damon—but their very niceness is their fatal flaw, their hamatia which causes their tragic downfall—except not quite, because the novel is a eucatastrophe, not a tragedy.

Elene Quen is a merchanter who is married to Damon Konstantin and staying on Pell for a while when she learns that her own ship, and family, have all been killed.

Josh Talley is a Union spy who after his brainwipe becomes something very interesting but also very ambivalent.

Satin is a hisa, an alien from Downbelow. The alien point of view is convincingly alien, but the hisa are, regrettably, furry noble savages. Cherryh has done much better aliens absolutely everywhere else she has aliens. I find the hisa embarrassing with their pidgin English and their names “Sky sees her” and “Bigfellow” and “Sun her friend.” Cherryh could do better than this—she did, the year before, with Pride of Chanur.

Ayres is a Company man, come from Earth to sell out the Mazianni and all of space. He starts off seeming deeply unsympathetic, but by the time Union have been horrible to him for most of the book, I feel terribly sorry for him.

Jon Lukas is a resident of Pell who tries to play both sides against the middle. He’s hard-headed, self-interested and very unpleasant, but that doesn’t mean he’s always wrong.

Vassily Kressich is a resident of Q, the Quarantine Zone where the refugees lead lives of riot and gangs, and who is so desperate he’s the pawn of anyone who uses him.

I used the word “desperate” several times, and I could have used it several more if I were talking about what happens to these people as the book goes on. It’s a novel about desperate people, desperate spacestations, desperate aliens, a desperate spacefleet that’s out of choices. It’s desperately claustrophobic too, with people hiding in tunnels filled with unbreathable air, not to mention that the whole of Pell is an inescapable trap. It’s marvellous that Cherryh manages to pull a happy ending out of all that.

That said, Downbelow Station is a book I only re-read because I’m in love with the universe, kind of the way one puts up with one’s spouse’s irritating relations.

This article is part of C. J. Cherryh Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
22 comments
Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
I've read this and _Cyteen_ of Cherryh and reading this post now makes it much more likely that I'll read more of Alliance-Union, and indeed her other books, which I've been meaning to for a while and yet . . . not, probably because this book was as you say and _Cyteen_, though mind-blowing, wasn't really easy either.

So, thanks.
Elizabeth Bear
2. matociquala
Funny: this is my favorite of the lot of them, and I particularly love Signy Mallory.

Not because she's nice--she's certainly not--but because she's so very much herself.

I've actually stopped reading Cherryh, because the books kept getting farther and farther away from what I loved about this one--the tightness, the muscularity of the narrative, and everything that's left unsaid.


In literature as in love, I guess.
Declan Ryan
3. decco999
I agree with the above posting. This is one of my favourites, so much so that only last week, in response to a challenge to a friend to read (and enjoy!) his first SciFi novel, I chose Downbelow Station out of all my collection.

I would also agree, however, that CJ Cherryh's earlier writing style tended to be quite intense - you daren't miss or skip lightly over a sentence lest you loose an important thread to the storyline. Her more recent writing, though, has progressively "lightened up", for want of a better term - perhaps, I suggest, prompted by an editor's pleading to make her books even more appealing to a bigger market.
DG Lewis
4. DG Lewis
I find Cherryh's writing to be high-risk, high-reward. When it works for me, I love the density, the tightness, and the sense that you've been dropped into the middle of a story, so you damn well better keep up. As opposed to some other writers who will take a three-page digression from the plot to fill you in on the background of their clever universe-building, Cherryh puts you into a story where the background is just there. It's part of the fabric, and it may take you 200 pages, but you'll learn it from immersion.

In the Alliance-Union books, I found it worked very well. Personally, I had more trouble with Forty Thousand in Gehenna than I did with Downbelow.

On the other hand, I've never been able to get more than about 50 pages into Fortress in the Eye of Time, so it doesn't always work for me. High-risk, high-reward.
Matthew Brown
5. morven
I loved it; it was the second thing of Cherryh's I ever read (after the Morgaine books, which are their own kind of intense, but a very different world, even though technically they are connected into the Alliance/Union world).

Of all the characters, I think, Signy Mallory is the standout here, the character you dislike and yet admire at the same time, admire for the reasons that end up making her the fault line which realigns everything. She's the one who seizes the chance for something new, a chance for greatness rather that the sorry end that staying her course would have ended up serving her - and she doesn't do it just for herself, either, despite that she rationalizes it that way, since she doesn't see herself as a good person.

I also enjoyed the space battles, which Cherryh does well; more fingernail-chewing anxiety than constant action, the uncertainties of knowledge given great distances and information lags, and the agony of loss that one must only watch, it being too late to do anything.
Matthew Brown
6. morven
D.G. Lewis: I've never been able to get into the Foreigner books, myself, for similar reasons.
DG Lewis
7. Chris Palmer
I've started Downbelow three or four times and never really got into it. After you (and maybe others on Tor.com) mentioned it several times recently, I picked it up and started over.

Now knowing what to expect, I'm over halfway through and enjoying it quite a bit.

Ironically, I've always thought the other books in the series looked interesting and I've liked other Cherryh books, but Downbelow had scared me away from the rest of the Union-Alliance series when it sounds like if I had backed into the series from them, it would have been smoother.

The language in Downbelow is definitely weird. It's not just the drop the articles or use strange word order that is typical of attempts at this. The language in this book is downright ungrammatical in a really awkward way. I'm pretty sure the first time I tried reading it (uh, back in high school when it came out and that's the copy I'm reading now), I wasn't sure if Cherryh had full command of the English language. I can see a little method to the madness now, but I bet it gave her editors and proofreaders fits.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Chris Palmer: I heard Cherryh say in a con that she said to the copyeditor on Downbelow Station "I'll see your English degree and raise you."
DG Lewis
9. Heloise Merlin
I read this first back when it came it out, and it quite (well, almost) literally blew my mind. Up to this day think it's not only one of the best, but also one of the most influential science fiction novel ever, in so far as with Downbelow Station Cherryh pretty much singlehandedly revolutionised the space opera genre, turning it from its head on its feet.

The way I see it, this is the first novel to combine events on a grand scale where history is played out with dirty, down-to-earth realism, to combine space combat with plausible psychology, the first novel to actually give some deep thought on what motives might move humans out in space to act in a certain way rather than another, in short to make it credible.

And countless other books have profited from what Cherryh did with this novel; I don't think Consider Phlebas or Revelation Space would have been written without Downbelow Station having paved the way.
Quivo Pink
10. Quivoly
AHA, no wonder this book beat me up. I'd heard recommendations for Cherryh here and elsewhere and thought, what better place to start at the beginning of the timeline. Boy was I wrong. I finished it, because it was engaging despite being hard to parse and hard to stand in places, and really didn't know whether to give Cherryh one more try once I was done.

Then I read another Alliance-Union book, Merchanter's Luck, and thought I'd just have to go on poking around her different series. That book didn't end as sweetly as I was hoping for, but I loved the characters and loved the glimpse I got of the new order, as well as Signy's little cameo. Pride of Chanur, which I read after, didn't really grab on for me-- I just kept being confused most of the way through it.

For my last try at finding a Cherryh book I could truly love, I went down to Half Price and picked a random selection of what they had: Foreigner was one of them, though I didn't really trust the praise Cherryh had been getting for her aliens, since the ones I'd read about were either confusing (Chanur et al) or just annoying (the hisa). Foreigner brought the goods I'd been waiting for, and hooked me hard.

I've read all nine that exist now, thanks to my awesome library, and harbor plans to buy all of them in print eventually if the ebook versions take too long to come out. Personally, I can't wait to see your tips for to where to start-- wish I'd had them earlier.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
All the people who love DS -- do you also like the Faded Sun books?
Blue Tyson
12. BlueTyson
9

I'm sure Revelation Space would have been written without Cherryh even existing.

Reynolds quotes Niven as his early influence (and obviously predates Cherryh by a long way), and quite clearly with the odd posthumans etc. it is Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist existence that matters.

Then of course the interzone influence of McAuley and Baxter - none of which seem to be anything like Cherryh at all from what is written here.
Russ Gray
13. nimdok
I like Downbelow Station. It is claustrophobic in the extreme. The spaces are tight, the characters are scared, and the writing is excellent.

I also like the Faded Sun series, but not as much. And I've never gotten into the Foreigner series.

But the Alliance-Union stories, they are excellent. Very well thought-out, with solid characters and excellent, dense writing. I'll have to go read them all again.
DG Lewis
14. cofax
Bluejo: I loved the Faded Sun books, and IIRC, they were the first of CJC's work I read. I loved the aliens and the way CJC developed that theme she has, of the human becoming alien.

She's gone there over and over in so many ways, with Faded Sun, and the Alliance/Union universe (most explicitly with 40,000 in Gehenna but also with the azi), and the Cherryh series. And, of course, with Foreigner (although to be fair I gave up on the Foreigner books after the second one).

The intersection with the alien, and the issues of cross-cultural communication/understanding appear to be powerful themes for her.

As for DS, I agree that it's a hard book to read and to enjoy, but the characters and plotting are just fantastic, so I have an enormous amount of respect for it, despite its difficulty.
Chuk Goodin
15. Chuk
I very rarely put down a book unfinished, but Downbelow Station was one of them, probably not even fifty pages in. I did eventually finish the Chanur books, although I kept slowing down and eventually pushed myself because I'd borrowed them from a co-worker and thought he might eventually like them back. (They were good, definitely excellent aliens (both socially and physically), and I quite liked the humans in it and how you see them from the alien point of view, but there was just something in the atmosphere of the books...maybe all the paranoia?)

So far, my favourite Cherryh has been Lois and Clark. And I don't like most media tie-in stuff.
scott palter
16. agingcow2345
The strength and the problem of DBS is that in many ways it is as much a series continuity bible as a novel. As an RPG writer and publisher that appealed to me but many friends have found it offputting. The books I suggest for getting into Cherryh are Merchanter's, Rimrunner and Tripoint in about that order . The Chanur books are to me lighter. Ditto Faded Sun. I have also noted that different groups of people like Cherryh's SF and her fantasy with Morgaine being the bridge they both enjoy. On all of this YMMV.
DG Lewis
17. ABai
Interesting. A lot of what's listed here as detrimental to the book is stuff I really liked: the unremitting sense of desperation, the off-putting-ness of many of the characters (I loved Mallory), the Hisa, and the monstrously huge cast. The narrative was tight, the premise was fascinating, and the plot, always her strong suit, never let up for a moment. That said there are plenty of Cherryh books I enjoyed more (Cyteen and the Fortress series probably top the list), and I will admit I had to keep going back a page or ten to keep track of who was doing what where.

I do agree with the comment about DBS being something of a series bible - while Merchanter's Luck, Tripoint, and other smaller-in-scope books in the Alliance universe are far easier to get into, reading DBS certainly gets the scene set.

*Loved* the Faded Sun series. Her exploration of the mutability of humanity is a recurring theme in her books, and never fails to grab my attention.

(I admit it: I am a slavering Cherryh fangirl):D
Claudia Morgenstern
18. dunnettreader
First, a giant "thankyou" to Jo Walton for this Alliance/Union re-read on the run-up to the publication of the Cyteen sequel. I've grown almost addicted to your fiction re-read posts here on Tor.com. In addition to Cherryh's novels, I've read many if not most of the works you've been discussing and seem to share lots of your tastes. So your analyses always seem concerned with aspects of fiction or writing which I find engaging, and I check my RSS daily to see if you've posted something new.

I especially enjoyed the recent "fantasy of manners" post with all the links to the prior net-conversation which Kate Nepveu had orchestrated on LJ. So many of my favorite authors and novels! And I'm now eagerly adding unexplored authors to my TBR pile.

Back to DBS. Cherryh has been a great favorite since I first encountered her in DBS when it was reissued for its 20th anniversary in 2001. I'm surprised by all the commenters who found it heavy going. I was immediately hooked so looked for anything else by her I could get my hands on.

Unfortunately, virtually all of the Alliance/Union universe was out of print. But I happily moved on to Faded Sun which was a different type of story but had a lot of what I liked in DBS -- intimate intensity on a vast canvas of space and history; how past, present and future intersect in the storytelling; how new situations can challenge what we think are the bedrocks on which values, personality and behavior are based. It certainly didn't disappoint.

I then became captivated by Chanur -- everything I love about Cherryh's intricate plots, complex politics, cross-cultural relations grounded in the political economies and environments of each culture, characters with fascinating personal histories that matter to who they are and the choices they make, intense action, wonderful comedy, and the best collection of alien races ever thrown together in the vicinity of a space station. Unlike Chanur, which I reread when I need a pick-me-up, the Foreigner series is very entertaining but feels somewhat thin.

By contrast with Cherryh's SF, which has never disappointed me, the Fortress fantasies don't do a whole lot for me. I found the ideas she was playing with more interesting than the characters or story, so I gave up on them somewhere along the second or third volume. And I seem to have missed both the ideas and the fictional elements of what she was doing with Morgaine. But maybe I had been on too much of a Cherryh binge and didn't have the right expectations for her fantasy. Probably should revisit them, just bring different expectations.

I finally got around to reading Cyteen when I saw it had been reissued a few years ago. I thought highly of it, but it didn't captivate me. It had all the ingredients I so admire in her SF. But I didn't feel the motivations of the main characters in the way I could relate to (not identify with, but at least relate to) the motivations of even her most-alien aliens in so many of her other novels. I felt I had a better handle on the Kif and the knnnn than most of the characters in Cyteen. And it wasn't just that the Cyteen characters were pretty unlovable, because I find some of her best characters in other novels are distinctly not nice yet are among her most compelling. Signy Mallory being a prime example. However, since I found it hard to engage with what made the Cyteen characters tick, I found I didn't really care all that much about who the murderer was.

Nonetheless, I'm looking forward to the publication of Regenesis, even though I don't care whodunnit. I'm looking forward to revisiting the Alliance/Union universe -- I've just arrived back at Pell Station and find myself once again captivated. I'm also hoping to read for the first time more of the novels from that universe in preparation for the newest story. I expect that in the process I'll come to appreciate Cyteen more, if for no other reason than for how it fits within the history of the worlds Cherryh has built over the past three decades.
Richard Boye
19. sarcastro
I must confess to having come Cherryh's oeuvre in a wierd direction. I started reading the Foreigner books, and then read 40,000 in Gehenna out of all context. Very jarring.

Over in rasfw, I was directed to the the foundational Alliance-Union books (Downbelow Station, Merchanter's Luck)... it was years later till I read Cyteen. Before that, Union is presented as utterly appalling, and I pieced back to Gehenna... oh boy.

Cherryh presents a very compelling society in which cloning is as commonplace as ordering a book over the 'net or having credits on your transit-card (and centuries old platyspheres die). Her strange, jilted, a-grammar often makes people bounce out of her stories, and I agree it takes some familiarzation, but once in.... this multi-book... series (is it a series...how would one describe this constellation of novels?), you get hooked. The Alliance-Union-verse (coupled with Compact Space) is among the finest feats of "world-building" in all of sci-fi and I am slavering until Cyteen II.

p.s. are the Foreigner books in the same -verse?
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Sarcastro: It appears that the Foreigner books are not in the same universe, because Jump works differently. In that universe people spend weeks muzzy but aware in folded space, whereas in the UA universe people need drugs and are usually unaware of time passing during the experience. So they're literally different universes at the physics level!
Christopher Weuve
21. chrisweuve
I find the reaction of people -- even Cherryh fans -- to DBS to be quite interesting. It's not quite either love it or hate it, but it's close. It's the first Cherryh book I read, and it left me desperate for more, and it's usually the book I recommend people start with, because it gives enough of the big picture that you understand the context in which the characters act.

CJC is one of my favorite authors. I've also learned, though, that I have to really be in the mood for CJC. If I am not, I put the book aside, without prejudice, and pick it up again later.

My second favorite Cherryh book, incidentally, is Hellburner -- a book I thought was OK the first time I read it, but absolutely brilliant the second time through.
DG Lewis
22. dancing crow
@11 - I was gobsmacked, in a good way, by Downbelow when it first came out, ditto with Chanur. The histories and universes and people are all things I find really compelling. I dislike the Faded Sun books, although I finished all of them, and I routinely grind to a complete halt reading her fantasy work.

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