Book Review: Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

The last book for my Readings in the Genre: Science Fiction Classics class for my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was Downbelow Station (Science Fiction 426 pages) by C.J. Cherryh.

This was actually the second time I’ve read this book; the first time I read this book was about five years ago. When I first read it, I was significantly impressed with how much I enjoyed this book. I don’t usually go for the full on science-fiction space books, but this story was amazing. I was starting to get worried near the end of the book that there was no way C.J. Cherryh could resolve all the issues satisfactorily. I built strong attachments to all the characters and didn’t want to see the book end with everyone dead. The end had so much going on that I didn’t see any way that all the loose ends could be wrapped up satisfactorily within the remaining pages.

The prologue contains a ton of information and that sets the scene for the rest of this very complicated novel. The prologue took a lot of work from me for me to get into the story and to care about all these big, broad-spectrum things going on out in the bigger example of the universe. I’m a character-motivated reader, so if the story doesn’t have characters that I care about, then I’m likely to stop reading. Once the prologue concluded and the disaster started with clearing Pell station for a massive amount of refugees taken at the worst possible conditions, I really got engrossed in the story.

The story was admittedly difficult to get into. The first chapter of the first book dealt with a lot of the build-up on how the universe in Downbelow Station came to be. I thought the first chapter was a little too poetic in some senses, but it really did convey a lot of information that readers needed. It was also a little confusing sometimes, unless I was paying very close attention, to where I was in the book. There are several books in the novel, each one not just broken down by chapter, but also by section. I also did not pay that much attention to the date / time group listed at the top of each break in chapter or section, except for times when I thought the time flow was confusing and I needed to check on whether the events in the current section were actually taking place at the same time as the previous section or later.

I think the big highlight for tension with the story for me was at the end of Book I, Chapter 2, Section I, where it ends with “Four hours.” I knew that it was four hours until Captain Mallory’s ship docked at Pell Station, but I really didn’t know what would happen next and I desperately wanted to know. I was hooked on the story at that exact point, which was in the first 17 pages of the book.

Throughout the entire novel, the descriptions are not simply visual, but encompass all senses. Especially when you think about space and how fragile and important life support systems would be to space travel. Even when traveling on airplanes or large boats, the taste and scent of recycled air is prevalent. On Pell Station when all the refugees start pouring in on expired life support systems, you really get a feel for how terrible their situation is as though you, yourself, are right there. I learned a lot from C.J. Cherryh’s writing and descriptive style. I am hoping I can be as clear and precise with my descriptions and to write as gripping a story as Downbelow Station.

I also believe C.J. Cherryh did an excellent job of building a completely different culture when she created the Hisa. At first, I wasn’t sure about how much I would agree with a non-human point of view, but I believe she pulled it off very well. The way the Hisa view technology and are overlooked by everyone was a masterful way of showing the importance of things we take for granted. The Hisa’s way of looking at the world is so foreign and alien to our own conceptions of the world in which we live that I would have thought it was going to be difficult for me to feel true empathy for the Hisa’s and their situation. The first mention of the Hisa on page 33 wasn’t actually an encounter with the Hisa, but rather exposure to the artwork of the Hisa. This spoke volumes about the different things each culture prioritizes. The humans on Pell value the hand-crafted, wooden sculptures from the “primitive” people of Downbelow, while those involved in the Company Wars don’t have the time or space to move art through the stars with them.

The Hisa spend the entire novel avoiding violence to the extreme, which could be seen as a very interesting part of social commentary because the rest of the characters in the novel all take action in some way or another. The Hisa, when faced with men with guns and battles for a metal world they don’t fully understand, run and hide as their first instinct. And yet it’s the Hisa who wind up saving the humans with their primitive ways, both on Downbelow and on Pell. On Pell, the Hisa are viewed as lesser beings and therefore most of the humans don’t bother to distinguish one Hisa from another, which gives them a freedom of movement none of the humans enjoy. That same freedom of movement is what allows them to protect Alicia Konstantin from the internal conspiracies of Jon Lukas and eventually the Company Fleet. Her presence and her knowledge of the station is then given to the Hisa who occupy the control room and move someone who cares back into the position of being in charge of Pell.

Most of the story revolves around three very, very different cultures that were forced to interact and grow in order to save them all. These cultures were each represented by one key character per culture. I think the reason those three characters were specifically chosen as the main focal points was because of the vastly different aspects of the story that each of them represents.

Signy Mallory is a space captain who is a true leader. She inspires her crew to greatness. She identifies herself in the book as “arrogant and ambitious,” but she is also extremely competent and capable. Something that might be interesting to note in this novel is that if Signy Mallory had been written as a male character instead of as a female character, she would have been labelled as a leader and not someone who is arrogant and ambitious. I don’t remember where I was reading about the subtle use of gender roles and sexism, but there was a recent article that discussed how men are expected to take charge. None of the other captains of the fleet are ever described like Signy Mallory is, and yet, all of them are vying for power and working to move themselves up, just like she is. The difference is that she is a female, and that’s why these are the characteristics that are noted about her.

Satin is definitely a level above the rest of the Hisa. She sees the world as a mixture of the beauty of the world that the Hisa know and the way they view their role in their world as well as viewing the truths of the world of men. In a lot of ways, she is the primary bridge between the world of men and the world of the Hisa. She has the wonder and beauty of the Hisa and the curiosity of the humans, which is a fantastic mix. I think Satin is the character in this story that best represents the ideal for humanity as a whole, which is interesting because Satin is an alien and not a human at all.

Josh Talley is a completely different story because, in the end, he chooses to be human. He was something that was created and not someone who was born. He was grown. He was programmed. Josh Talley, and those like him, are those who are blank slates. They are created to serve a specific purpose. Mindless robots who will accomplish their assigned tasks with no questions asked. Cannon fodder for an intergalactic war. This is the entire civilization that the Union represents – a life without purpose, without art, without creativity, without love, and without freedom. The Union is winning the war through sheer force of numbers, and it takes Josh Talley the entire book to realize that being a mindless drone who destroys entire space stations isn’t really much of a life at all.

One of the most interesting parts of this novel for me was the real, human aspect of the relationship between characters in the novel. One of the things I liked about Damon and Elene’s developing relationship was that later, they have an entire discussion about why she went off birth control and he didn’t go off his. This is an interesting development for a couple reasons. The first is kind of a social commentary about how, in the future, both the male and the female are on birth control and that in order for a family to have children, both parties have to make a conscious decision for that to happen and they both have to take steps for that pregnancy to happen. The second interesting part of that relationship development is that Damon honestly discussed with Elene that he didn’t think he trusted her reasoning for wanting to have children at that time in their lives. After they discussed it and other stuff happened on Pell station that affected their outlook on the future in general, Damon agreed that having a child would probably be a good thing for both of them and what they both wanted and needed. He understood and respected her decision, and he eventually agreed with her and ceased his own birth control in order to facilitate her happiness. This speaks volumes about how to develop and maintain a positive, long-term relationship. Not to say that positive, long-term relationships are built on children, but rather open and honest communication. This is a clear demonstration of a healthy relationship where they both communicate effectively.

This novel shows an extreme crisis point. War is never an easy topic, and most people who write about war only write about the camaraderie between soldiers, the horrors of violence and war, or the politics involved in war. Refugee situations tend to destabilize the surrounding areas. It’s very rare in my experience that those who are refugees are given adequate time for their parts of the story. In fact, someone could easily take Downbelow Station and make it into a romance or something by creating minor characters that don’t affect the overarching plot, but could be a wonderful story of fantastic good luck, where a separated family just happens to find each other, and they get to start a new life on the planet. Or something. My point is that it’s very rare that the true plight of refugees is honestly acknowledged. I was particularly moved by the increased discussion about proper papers and identifications and how even honest people couldn’t prove that their identifications were genuine.

I think that this story demonstrates a very feasible future for the expansion of humankind into the stars because this shows that it’s not really a pretty process. It’s messy and sterile and unfriendly. And just beyond our current reality 🙂

The Union people were absolutely terrifying in that I can easily see the future heading towards genetic clones of everyone, leaving no identities, no individuals, no new and creative differences. They make blank people and rewrite them as often as necessary. It’s rather frightening.

Overall, this book is easily a high three or low four on my rating scale. I am glad I own it, I’m highly likely to read the book again, and I learned a lot about writing and storyy-telling from this novel.

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About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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