Downbelow Station.

I have a new board game review up at Paste, covering Majesty: For the Realm, the latest game from Splendor designer Marc Andre.

C.J. Cherryh was one of the last Hugo-winning authors I hadn’t read – it was just her and the two authors of The Forever Machine, widely considered the worst novel to win that award – before I cracked Downbelow Station, her 1981 book that opened her ongoing Company Wars series. I believe there’s an interesting story somewhere buried in this novel, but the atrocious writing and generic characterization just ruined the work, making it one of the most difficult novels in this series for me to finish.

Set in the years 2352-53, after an entity known as The Company has set up a network of space stations in various solar systems beyond our own, mostly orbiting planets without intelligent life. The action in the book takes place entirely on the planet Pell, both on the planet’s surface, known as Downbelow, and its space station, known by Pell’s native species, the hisa, as Upabove. The stations beyond Pell are in revolt against the Company, and Pell embarks on a futile course of neutrality between the new federation, called simply Union, and the Company, aided by a group of merchanter ships called the Fleet. The War itself has been ongoing for some time before the book opens, although we get very little of its history, other than the arrival of several ships packed with refugees on Pell, where they’re put in Q (for quarantine) and kind of left to fend for themselves because the station can’t handle this volume of new residents.

Pell is run by the Konstantin family, including Angelo, his invalid (but very alert) wife Alicia, and their sons Damon and Emilio, all of whom are opposed by the Lukas family, led by Jon, who has run operations on Downbelow for some indeterminate period. Jon Lukas is Alicia’s brother, but plots to work with Union to save his own skin in exchange for control of Pell. Meanwhile, a soldier from the Fleet ship Norway, Josh Talley, shows up on Pell and demands the treatment known as Adjustment, which wipes a person’s memory and is usually used as punishment for severe crimes. Norway itself is captained by Mallory Signy, the closest thing this book has to an interesting character, and one of the only women of any consequence within it – perhaps because Cherryh took a dim view of the pace of progress in equal rights back in the 1980s. The intrigues between the Konstantins and Lukas’ team of mutineers, the Company and the Union, the Fleet among itself and against Pell, the Fleet against Union, Talley against who-knows-who, and then the Union commander Azov against the Fleet leader Mazian except Mazian doesn’t know he’s being played.

It was never clear to me what the point of any of this was – what larger story or theme Cherryh might be trying to express here. The characters could not be less interesting; everyone is either unequivocally good or bad, with the possible exception of Signy. The hisa themselves are impossibly kind and sweet beings, less technologically advanced than humans but capable of similar levels of cognition; because they’re all so good, however, there’s no distinguishing between any of the hisa (or “Downers,” as some of the humans call them) who play significant roles in the plot. And you can easily figure out which humans are bad by how they treat the hisa – Lukas and his myrmidons treat them like something akin to slaves, less-than-human laborers whose inability to understand hate or violence just makes them inferior. The Konstantins treat the hisa with empathy and kindness, and the hisa reciprocate – mild spoiler, that relationship becomes very important near the end of the book – so you know the Konstantins are the good guys.

The other major problem with Downbelow Station is Cherryh’s leaden prose; for a book that had a fair amount of dialogue and action, it moves incredibly slowly, in part because Cherryh writes in a stilted, clipped style that often dispenses with critical parts of speech or lapses into the internal vernacular of the book without warning or any kind of explanation. The space station around Pell is apparently the size of a small city, and has a secondary network of tunnels used by the hisa who work on the station, but the descriptions thereof are so lacking that even after completing the book, I don’t have a good picture of how it looked or how the structure might have been organized.

Cherryh won the Hugo for another novel in the series, Cyteen, about another station in her universe where embryos are grown in a lab and ‘manufactured’ to be soldiers capable of undertaking specialized operations. I can only hope her writing improved by the time she wrote that book.

Next up: I’m reading David Brin’s Startide Rising, which won the Hugo two years after Downbelow Station.


  1. “atrocious writing” is the key phrase for me.

    I generally like old SF (and have commented here a lot on Heinlein) and I was looking forward to this one when I finally got to it a year ago… and then I didn’t get more than fifty pages. I think I only made it that far out of a morbid fascination that it had managed to win a Hugo.

    • I only have nine Hugos left, but when I’m done, I’m going after Connie Willis’ entire bibliography. She’s absolutely the best pure writer of all the SF authors I’ve encountered, even over Heinlein and Asimov.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check them out.

  2. Keith,
    I disagree with you on Cherryh, but that’ll happen. (For instance, I still find the protagonist of Grossman’s The Magicians too passive.) She is, at best, an acquired taste.

    BTW, thanks for the recommendation for Blackout/All Clear. Connie Willis has a vein of the absurd running through her work, much like Jasper Fforde. In some (Bellwether, To Say Nothing of the Dog, etc.), the absurd plays a major part; in others (such as her time travel books), it’s eventually overwhelmed/replaced by the grimness of the situations. In any event, thanks again.

  3. I recently read Cyteen for a podcast I host (reading all the Hugos). It’s set in the same universe as Downbelow Station. It’s also an incredibly long book, especially given that the page count is only 660 pages. But the pages are enormous, probably twice the normal trade paperback size. I enjoyed it but it’s certainly not close to the best of the Hugo winners. Now I’m dreading having to read Downbelow.

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