Welcome to the second round of discussion on C.J. Cherryh’s classic 1981 novel Downbelow Station. New to the program? The first discussion can be found here.
Chris Hocking gets the ball rolling this time around.
I had business travel to do and took Downbelow Station on the plane for some serious reading. I came away from it realizing that I had developed an unusual (for me at least) attitude toward the book.
This is an intense SF novel depicting otherworldly conflict in alien environments, but it’s tone is resolutely workaday and normalized. The exotic situations and scenes described are experienced by the characters, and presented to the reader, with matter-of-fact realism. We follow several characters whose histories and position are laid out and fitted into this fictional environment with great skill. This is a story of interplanetary war, of political maneuver and counter-maneuver, of individuals and policy makers struggling to deal with the critical issues and collateral adjustments that inevitably arise in wartime. It is executed by Cherryh with remarkable depth and solidity: the environment meshes completely with the story being told and the overall effect is very convincing. This is a powerful and deep imagination at work.
Yet having said all that, I find the book a half-step out of phase with my own reading tastes. The consistent desperation of most of the characters, the grueling effects of war and displacement are all well done and appropriate to the story being told, but for me the cumulative effect was kind of enervating. I’ve read enough bleak modern fiction and noir that this didn’t bother me much in itself, but it was coupled with the notable absence of an element I tend to seek in Science Fiction.
This is best described with that loaded (often derided) term, Sense of Wonder. Now before everybody starts throwing things at me I want to narrow the definition from the widescreen, nostalgia-soaked version that probably leaps to mind, and confine it to simply an ‘unveiling of the strange and unknown’ or maybe just a ‘sense of discovery’. Because of the way this story is told, the spectacular advances in civilization, extraterrestrial contact, spaceborne conflict and otherworldly vistas are simply part of the workaday background of the characters’ lives, and presented to the reader as no more notable, unusual or even interesting than the scenery along the highway on my way to work. This is utterly consistent with the story being told, but it doesn’t reach, engage or move me as much as I would wish.
I’m not done with Downbelow Station and there’s still much to learn, but from where I’m at now I find that this is a novel for which I feel more admiration than love.
Yes, I am cruelly long-winded.
“Workaday and normalized,” I absolutely love that description. The Alliance-Union setting feels like a deeply believable future extrapolated from our own (or at least thru the early eighties). Cherryh’s approach to the material is almost the opposite of sense of wonder. With its gray-on-gray morality, political duplicity, and the savagery of the quarantine decks, it’s grimdark decades before the term was coined. It’s a future that’s gritty and exhausting and it feels real. Most of the characters seem just one step away from disaster and they know it. They’re constantly weighed down by the seeming near inevitability of disaster. FTL aside, Cherryh’s crafted a setting that seems like a very possible extra-solar future for humanity in all its pedestrian glory. Bureaucracy, conniving merchants, deceitful politicians, it’s all there in the stars.
Chris, I’m a fan of all those things you connect to a Sense of Wonder. Last year, when I reread Ringworld, despite its flaws, Niven’s Big Idea still grabbed me and awed me. One of the few recent sci-fi books I’ve read, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, is almost pure SoW. That said, the sci-fi I’m most a fan is drawn from the same vein as DbS. Cherryh’s work is on a straight line from Gordon Dickson’s, Poul Anderson’s, and the like.
I’m impressed by the mechanics of Cherryh’s plotting. The first section withheld the answer to what was really going on in the novel. We got bits and pieces, but the reader has to put them together. Now, what those pieces mean and how they fit to one another becomes apparent. It should have been obvious to me already, but now it’s clear that Pell Station is the prize every faction wants – the Konstantins, Lukas, the Company, the Fleet, and above all, Union.
I also like the creepiness of Union. The awfulness of the way the treat the Earth diplomats is unsettling. We also learn they’ve deliberately destroyed several stations before they were evacuated instead of letting the Fleet escape with their skilled techs and administrators. Even though we see little of them, though the introduction of a Union spy looks like that will change, they make a great enemy – they’re terrifying and they seem unbeatable.
What I find interesting is that in fantasy, I want the SoW. I dislike the current crop of fantasy that drains out the fantastic, replacing it with supposed realism. In science fiction, though, I like it very much.
Chris and Fletcher, you both bring up a very good point. All the spaceships and the stations are all very normalized and workaday—even Pell’s World itself is (so far) constantly wreathed in rain and mired in mud, and, because the atmosphere is dangerous to humans, they are basically living in the cramped conditions they are used to in the stations and ships. Except with more mud. And the having to deal with the local natives (the Downers).
And that reminds me, the only character who really has much of a sense of wonder is Satin (one of the Downers)—but all her SoW is tempered by the fact that Satin is ignorant of what is going on and what she is getting into, but the reader certainly is not.
As I said in the first exchange, one of the reasons that I like John Lukas, is that he’s the only character who is really taking any kind of direct action (horrible, horrible action for all the wrong reasons). In the second section Cherryh gives Satin a hand in her own fate, and Ayers (the head of the Company/Earth ambassadors) has broad powers and a very set mission. Josh Tally (war prisoner, potential war criminal) makes the decision to have his memories (what are left of them) erased.
But the thing is, Cherryh doesn’t let anybody get off easy. John Lukas’ plans work a little too well and once the Union spy shows up he starts to feel like he’s in over his head. Ayers, after a strong start, ends up chin-deep into the receiving end of psychological warfare, Tally, as soon as he gets his memories erased, spends all his time trying to get them back, and I’ve already touched on Satin’s situation.
Of course, the real power players, the captains of the warships and the ruling clan of Downbelow station, have all their decisions and action tempered by the fact that they will get people killed (and get themselves killed) if they are not careful.
Except, as Fletcher brings up, for the Union’s actors.
Adrian: That’s a good point: Cherryh doesn’t let anybody get off easy. Except for maybe Cpt. Mallory (and the increasingly frightening Unioners), nobody’s exempt from being in over his or her head and from being less equipped for events than he or she thinks. Again, tacking for realism, nobody’s incompetent or stupid, just average. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of traditional space opera. There are no obvious heroes, only mundane bureaucrats, soldiers, and businessmen trying to keep themselves alive as the crap is hitting the fan.
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