Sep 192018

Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh

Synopsis: A neutral outpost is drawn into a war between two vastly more powerful adversaries, threatening everything they believe and ultimately their existence.

Book Review: For a book published in 1981, this is still a surprisingly relevant story! It starts with a refugee crisis, one infinitely more interesting and well-represented than whatever Exit West was trying to do. It shows the moral difficulty of the situation, displaying both the injustice and despair of the abused refugees, and the societal problems and resource constraints experienced by the pre-existing population. One of our heroes even begins to fantasize of atrocity to solve this problem.

This deep understanding and unguarded presentation of all sides continues through-out the book. Cherryh presents real people with compelling views among all sides, which I greatly admire in fiction. While there are some villains, the biggest true villain is the specter of war itself, and the horrors it brings. When an antagonist looks poised to take control of the station, all I could think was “Yes! Please let him do a good job of this! I don’t care who controls the station just so long as we can avoid the ravages of warfare.” This is good writing.

The station itself reminded me of Renaissance-era city-states. Geographically small, dependent upon the laborers of the lands around them to survive, with politics ruled by strong families that often have bitter rivalries among them. Betrayal and intrigue is the order of the day, but in the end it is the city that is the most important thing, rather than any individual person or family. I loved it.

Maybe it’s not a perfect book… the protagonists are slightly too Paladin-like for my tastes. The innocent pre-civilization aliens that work with the humans are just over-the-top innocent and sweet and helpful, going beyond even the caricature of the Noble Savage. But nonetheless, this is a fantastic novel. It was never slow, never anything but supremely written, and I cared for the station and what was happening on the next page. The structure of the novel, written in many places as a series of vignettes that show how major political decisions affect the day-to-day lives of the small people on the ground, as well as the outcomes of flashy space-battles, was exquisite. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

I’m reading Hyperion in my free time right now as well, and these two books together are making me reconsider my reading strategy. Rather than chasing the shiny new thing, which often disappoints, I am beginning to think I really should focus on reading through all the books that I hear many times, from multiple sources, are amazing. Seminal works, things considered classics of the genre, and so forth.


Book Club Review: Also a great book club book. There is much to talk about, and everyone will find something to love. In addition to asking if ideals can survive the necessities of a callous world, the book raises several moral questions that will likely get people talking. I’ll be writing about one tomorrow, but it’s hell of a spoiler, so I’m not including it in this review. If your book club is willing to have conversations on difficult issues without good resolutions, this is a great starting point. And even if they aren’t, it’s still a good book which will be enjoyed and bring discussion with it. Recommended.

  7 Responses to “SF/F Review – Downbelow Station”

  1. That sounds like the kind of book I enjoy. Thanks for recommending it, I’ll put it on my christmas wishlist (because I always have trouble finding things to put on that).

    Two minor spelling errors I noticed:
    dawn -> drawn
    Cherry -> Cherryh

    • As an amusing note, the author’s last name actually is Cherry, and she published as Cherryh because her editor advised her that Cherry sounded too feminine. So the typo is also, a correction at the same time.

      • Oh, sorry about that then, I didn’t know that (and I thought I had properly checked by clicking on the amazon link and seeing the Author listed as C. J. Cherryh. :-)

      • I did know this, which is probably what led to the mistake. :) But it’s bad form not to use the author’s nom-de-plume in a review, so I’ve fixed it.
        Also, isn’y that’ freakin crazy?? It still annoys me that women authors had to do this. :( And in some cases, still do.

    • Thank you! Corrected

  2. I’m very excited to read this review. This book has been on my list of things to check out for a while, but its in a larger universe / series and I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest in reading the whole series, but I also wasn’t confident in being able to find a good review that told me if I needed to read other books in the series without spoiling something inadvertently. This answers all my questions at once, and without spoilers. I’ll probably scoot this book up my list and read it as one of my next 3-5 books.
    As to reading strategy, I’m pretty surprised that you haven’t gone through all the well-reviewed classics (not that I have). Especially since you are a regular World Con attendee; I had just kinda assumed that you had read all the Hugo winners and were focused on new stuff now because you had already read most of the old stuff. Its funny how impressions can be via online mediums.

    • Heh, yeah, I’m a big ol’ fraud. :'(

      I actually, for a long time, had a feeling of “The classics are old, dusty tomes, which no longer apply to the modern SF lit scene. I don’t think they’re that great, and I don’t need to read them.” This was probably reinforced by the prevalence of “psi powers” in a fair bit of otherwise Hard SF during the 50s-70s, and the fact that I really dislike Tolkien’s writing style. YES, I admit it, I wasn’t able to read LOTR. Yes, I know he basically single-handedly invented modern fantasy with that work. I am a bad geek.

      But as I’ve read more and more of the classic works, especially the highly acclaimed ones, I’ve had to change my mind. Most of them are highly acclaimed for damn good reason.

      Although I do also really love finding great things that are not as well known. I still think Vellum is the best book ever, and I stumbled on that by accident, and almost never hear anything about it.

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