Monday, January 14, 2008

Review - Downbelow Station

Downbelow Station
by C. J. Cherryh
1982 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

It usually only takes me two or three days to read a novel. C. J. Cherryh's stuff took me about a week and a half. Not because it was significantly longer and not because it was so terrible that I had to keep putting down the book and walking away but because it was dense.

Some writers can take fifteen hundred pages to tell a story that could fit into five hundred (I'm looking at you fantasy series authors). Cherryh takes eight hundred pages and tells a story that could have fit comfortably into two thousand. Downbelow Station is stuffed to overflowing with complex plots that will make your head spin.

An unfortunate result of this is that you'll spend the first hundred pages with your head spinning. "Who was that? Why did they lie about that? Where was that again?" Cherryh places a rather painful history lesson at the beginning of the book to try to give readers the groundwork but it fails badly.

I had not read any of Cherryh's books before and so going into Downbelow Station I was unaware that it used an existing setting. I had resolved that for books where I had not read the earlier books in the series that I would try to read those earlier books first but I just didn't know. Cherryh's history lesson is too dry, goes on too long, and the exposition should have been incorporated into the book better. Fortunately once I was up to speed the fact that I didn't read the previous works didn't matter but it may have made the start even rockier for me.

The book is about the struggle for Pell, a trading outpost in orbit around the only planet where humans have found other intelligent life in the universe. Many factions want to control it or use the station as a pawn in their own conflicts and Cherryh essentially mixes them all up and has them fight. They are:

  • The Union, a Soviet style communist dictatorship that broke away from Earth and is now returning as conquerors. Pell is the last station before they can get back into Earth's shipping lanes. After an extended war they've broken...
  • The Earth Company Fleet who are now fighting a slow retreat, evacuating thousands from other stations as the Union destroys them. They've flooded Pell with refugees to throw the administation into chaos, the better to use the station as a staging ground for one last desperate gamble against the Union. However they've been betrayed by...
  • The Earth Company who have lost control of the fleet. They've withdrawn all support for the fleet and are in negotiations with the Union to try to stall them long enough for Earth to prepare it's next move.
  • The Konstantines have run Pell for generations as a neutral outpost and are trying to hold onto that neutrality in this conflict but...
  • Jon Lukas, a businessman on Pell, has a plan to overthrow them and seize control of the station for himself. Unfortunately...
  • The refugees on Pell have been forced into a cramped, quarantined section and they have plans of their own for getting out. A wild card in this is...
  • Emilio Konstantine who has been given control of Downbelow Station, the human outpost on the planet below, and has resources of his own to put into this conflict. Meanwhile...
  • The merchant alliance simply wants to stay out of it but they are preyed upon by Union and Company forces alike. The Union seizing their cargo and the Company forming press gangs.
And that's just part of it. There's the double agents, plots within plots, and everyone lying about just about everything. Downbelow Station requires careful reading because of its density of plot. The characters are all richly drawn and I didn't find any of the antagonistic characters (it's hard to call them "antagonists" when there's so many conflicting factions) to be shallow. Cherryh created a very rich book.

My only major complaint is that the prose is at best workmanlike. It's not much of a fault really but it does make it harder to get through those initial pages while you're trying to figure out who's who.

Though I had not read Downbelow Station before I was aware of the book. When Babylon 5 was airing it was often cited by the show's creator as a major influence. I could see large sections of the novel where concepts and actions were homaged (to put it politely) and so I would definitely recommend reading Downbelow Station to fans of Babylon 5 just to see where some of the things came from.

To be more precise I'd highly recommend Downbelow Station but you need to be aware going into it that you'll have to make a major investment of time and effort before the ideas come together. I know quite a few people who couldn't make it over that initial steep hill to enjoy the depth of the novel but my feeling is that it is well worth that initial effort.