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Black Gate Book Club, Downbelow Station, Final Discussion

Wednesday, July 4th, 2018 | Posted by Adrian Simmons

BdS1Welcome to the final round of the Black Gate Book Club, where we hash out or feelings and impressions on C.J. Cherryh’s 1981 classic Downbelow Station (DbS).  We also give DbS our final score– and things get contentious!

Need to catch up on the discussion?  Easily done with these convenient links to the first, second, third, and fourth rounds.

Adrian S.

I finished DbS last week. Third time was on the money!  Since I appeared to be the slow elephant I assume that everyone else was probably finished before I was.  In our set-up for the Black Gate Book Club we said that we’d give a final 1 to 10 rating on the books and this is our opportunity for that, as well as for final thoughts/quibbles/arguments.

Me? I’m going to give DbS a 6 out of 10.

I acknowledge the vastness of the story and the world(s) that Cherryh constructed. It is intricate, it is dynamic, it is chaotic; she has two generations of station masters vs. two generations of saboteurs, vs. a rag-tag Company Fleet, vs. an unknown foe of the Union forces, and throws in the Downers and the Merchanters and all that.

That said, did we really have to spend 300 pages setting the board so that some things could start happening? Yes, I get it, a slow burn, small disasters leading to bigger disasters.  But 300 pages of it?

300 pages of characters that seem completely interchangeable. Is there much of a difference between Angelo Konstantin and his sons Emilio and Damon.  Is there much of a difference between Emilio and Damon?   Ditto Jon Lucas and his two sons?   Double ditto between Conrad Mazian and Seb Azov.  Double damn ditto the women in the story,  Miliko (Emilio’s wife) and Elene (Damon’s).

I’m going to expand on something that Chris Hocking said about Cherryh’s lack of a sense of wonder. Not only is there no real sense of wonder, but Cherryh seems to be able to only write one real emotional state—a crippling sense of dread (CSoD).  And that’s why each of those characters comes across pretty much the exact same way—they all have intricately explored, elaborated, and expanded CSoD.  There seems to be no character that she doesn’t put into a claustrophobic environment to stew in their own cold terror.

That’s why Jon Lukas, Jessad, Ambassador Ayers and even Satin stand out in this story like giants—they are the only characters who take an active hand in their own fate.  Even Bran Hale and the goon from Q , secondary characters at best, bestride Downbelow Station like colossi because they do something. The rest just bounce around like terrified pinballs until they are finally forced to take some action.

Fletcher V.

Well, you were wrong. I finished it this morning. I let things slide last week, also I remembered the general outline of the ending so I didn’t feel particularly pressed to rush to see what happened. So there.

I’d give it an 8.5 or 9 out of 10. I’ll give you and Chris every single point you made, but they only make the book deeper and more powerful in my eyes. I think almost every one of those 300 pages (and really, I think it’s fewer than that) is valuable at setting the stages and bringing, one by one, the characters out of the wings. Imagine DbS as the story of one of those eighty car smash ups on the highway, told in slow motion from the moment each driver leaves his or her house, through the approach to the accident, the collision and resultant fires and explosions, and finally the ambulances taking away the dead and the survivors deciding what to do next. Cherryh’s hyper attention to detail is a significant part of what makes DbS “feel” real. Some of the characters aren’t particularly differentiated from each other. I lay that down largely to one of the points I believe Cherryh’s making. Konstantins have “evolved” to act like Konstantins, with the same sense of responsibility to Pell and the same essential reactions to anything that happens. They are less individuals than members of a family taught and raised to act in a single way. We get the feeling that same thing goes on on the merchant ships, run by single extended families. Everybody from Union clearly moves in complete unison at all times.

That “realness,” that lack of Sense of Wonder, is another major part of why I love this book. We may never make to other stars, relativistic speeds being what they are, but if we do, DbS and not Star Trek or Anderson’s or Piper’s space empires is what I imagine it will feel like. DbS is to sci-fi like LeCarre is to espionage fiction. It’s a universe of mostly recognizable human motivations and responses to crises. This doesn’t mean it’s just like the present, but it’s clearly evolved from it.

I wrote last time I plan to read some of the post-DbS stories, like Merchanter’s Luck, in the future. Now, I know I have to finally wade into Cyteen. Union, what little Cherryh, reveals of it, is terrifying. Except for a bigwig like Adm. Azov, everybody seems to be vat-bred, tape-taught clones. The reaction of the Union troops on the captured merchanter is to make clear they will blow themselves and their prisoners, children too, to smithereens. The big reveal with Josh Talley and what happens with him is depressing. Side note: I was reminded of Total Recall when Talley thinks about his memories only being imprints but realizing they mean everything to him, they’re what he dreams of, because they’re all he has. Union clearly sees no problem with how it acts, in fact,the implications are that the clones of Union can’t see a problem with how they act. It all goes back to Cherryh’s foreword where she describes how cultures have historically sent their children out to the frontiers only to see what evolves is something alien and strange.

C.J. Cherryh

C.J. Cherryh

I agree Miliko remains one-dimensional, but I disagree about Elene Quen. Far more than anyone else form stationside, she is an active player. Cherryh builds her up showing worries about being pregnant, and, more importantly, her fears of remaining stationside and depression over the murder of her family and the destruction of their ship by Union. When the time comes and she takes to the space lanes on Finity’s End, she makes herself the rallying point and, clearly, the leader of the nascent merchanter’s alliance. I actually wish Cherryh has written another fifty pages or so on the plotting done by Quen and the merchanters to put the alliance together.

Crippling Sense of Dread, other than a cool name for a crappy high school emo band, probably could be stamped on every Alliance-Union book by Cherryh. EVERYBODY is overwhelmed by forces outside their control, EVERYBODY feels, and often is, inadequate to face the pressures crushing the life out of them, EVERYBODY stands to lose EVERYTHING they hold dear and that defines their existence. It’s something she excels at conveying. I also think that point of pressure, that place where everything is coming down on a character’s head like the razor-sharp tip of an arrow backed by a ten-ton weight, is what Cherryh is fascinated by and wants to explore. If you want happiness, wide-open vistas, and characters always able to stand on their own two feet, the Alliance-Union books are not going to be for you. They, in addition to all the aforementioned bits, are about what happens to regular people, and aside from Mallory (who on terrifically awesome SOB in the end), everyone is extraordinarily ordinary. Even the people who have special positions, the Konstantins for example, have no special powers or insights. I think that’s actually another thing I really liked about DbS. Any heroics come from mundane people, but they’re able to make the moral leap to doing what should rightly be done when things require it – Emilio on Downbelow and Mallory towards Mazian in particular. Damon’s and Talley’s bravery in trying to survive first Lukas’ command and then Mazian’s is more powerful because we know just how scared they’ve been. Overall, I think DbS remains a powerful story with a much richness.

It’s a great book, probably even an important one, but I have to admit, up against Claw of the Conciliator and The Many-Colored Land, I not sure I’d have voted it for the Hugo. The other two candidates in 1982 were Project Pope, which I remember as fairly standard Simak, and Little, Big, which I still haven’t read but I know people still rave about.

 

Chris H.

Yeah, I didn’t finish until just now, though I hung on and drew those last hundred or so pages out over the past several days.

I’d give the book an 8 out of 10.  Honestly, in terms of a sustained work of the imagination, it probably deserves close to the highest marks SF can offer.  The awards were justly received.

But for my own part I found the long build up rather drier than it might have been, enough so that if I hadn’t determined that the book was a complete package and events would all combine toward a total experience I might have set it aside and been distracted by something shiny.  That would have been my loss, but it is the truth.

Everyone seems to understand my ‘sense of wonder’ remarks (thanks, that loaded term has gotten me into trouble a couple times) and I stand by them, although I caught a glimpse of wonder in the great gathering of the humans and hisa on Pell.

Fletcher’s remark, DbS is to sci-fi like LeCarre is to espionage fiction rang like a gong in my narrow skull.  Bullseye.  Ordinary people in circumstances I, the reader, find extraordinary but that they understand as the simple elements of their lives.  That works and makes sense as part of the author’s consistent vision.

While the slide of everything and everybody into war understandably leads to an overall aura of apprehension and dread, I found that this made the few positive moments extra dramatic and powerful.  Quen’s rescue from the rioters by two men from Finity’s End took up only a few paragraphs but rose out of the pages like a warm glow compared to the chaos on all sides.

This book is a remarkably sustained and complete work of the imagination.  I’ll read more Cherryh, but probably not for a while.  And when I do it’s got to be The Gate of Ivrel, because I read that book when it was a new DAW paperback, thought it was awesome and cannot remember a damn thing about it except that I thought the heroine’s sword was really cool.  I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than that.

Thanks guys,

Chris

While Chris Hocking wisely bowed out, Adrian and Fletcher went at it like the Company and the Union.

Adrian S.

Hah! It looks like I finished the book first. Slow and steady wins the race, gentlemen.

You both give DbS a much higher score than I did… maybe my 6 was a bit low, I could be shamed into a 7. I should perhaps clarify that my score may have been pulled down because, while I’ve read a lot of CJ Cherryh,  I just didn’t enjoy DbS that much—not for the work I had to put into it!

Some of my view may be colored by the fact I read the Chanur books (written after DbS) well before I read DbS, and found that DbS has less of what I liked in Chanur and more of what I didn’t like from Chanur.

Fletcher, as to your claim that the “realness” is one of the things that you like about it. I didn’t think it was very realistic.  Again, nobody in the family that runs DbS ever bothers to ask just how many people are in Q, much less how many people the station can hold, much less that the station has no weapons of its own, or any ships of its own—after over a generation of independent operation!  And, that this enormous city-sized station is incredibly frail, any ship can seemingly destroy it, heck, even a lone saboteur can destroy it!  I don’t really find that “real”, much less that all the people in Q, the desperate, filthy, crime-ridden people in Q act like they’ve never been on a station before, when in fact they are all from other damn stations/ships!  There is an entire sub-station in the station built for the convenience of the Downers, even though the Downers don’t seem to do much but basic manual labor.  Not a single one of the thousands (apparently) merchanter ships ever goes back to Earth in the entire two years this all takes place?  Honestly!

And I get it, sometimes things happen for purposes of plot, but I just think that there are one too many conspicuous absences for purposes of plot.

As to Crippling Sense of Dread, they are opening for Boba Fetish at the armory this weekend.

Chris, I think you are right that the only real SoW in the book is from the Downers or from people around the Downers. My problem with CSoD is that it really starts making all her characters the same, and sometimes I got the feeling that she was padding the story with extra CSoD.

Again, I can respect DbS, but I can’t ignore some of its flaws (and the book did win the Hugo, as did a sequel (Cyteen—which is supposed to be about as awesome as awesome can be), so clearly it is an important work.

 

Fletcher V.

Adrian, I don’t have it in front of me, but I think there is some discussion among the Konstantins and their staff about the numbers of refugees and the station’s capacity to handle them. I don’t think we hear specifics because that’s the sort of technical scut work done by lower level techs, but you are given the sense that the life support systems are being pushed to the limits and how imperative it is to get people a lot of them off station. As to the fragility of of Pell, I think you’re right, but I also think that’s deliberate on Cherryh’s part, the implication being just how tenuous survival in the stars is. Also, I think the merchanters are nearly as distrustful of Earth as they are frightened of Union. It’s spelled out in  Heavy Time  and  Hellburner  much more explicitly, but there’s a serious cultural divided between spacers and Earthers and a deep hatred of the Company.

She is hard on the Q-refugees. To give her her due, though, they’ve had their homes destroyed, family members killed, they’ve been starved and forced to breathe dirty air on the  Norway, agitators and thugs brutalize and exploit them. On top of that, Pell seems unwilling to help them. As soon as Jessad arrives on Pell, he’s stoking the fires for riots. History’s full of people victimized by horrible events seemingly incapable of acting in their own best interests anymore. I know this all reads a little defensive, but I think it’s because we both found something very different in DbS.

Chris, who gave you grief over SoW? In discussions of sci-fi and fantasy that seems ridiculous. Whatever. I love the hisa sequences after Emilio and company go off into the woods. Even more, I love Satin and company’s relationship with the Konstantin matriarch.

One last comment. Jo Walton did a massive Cherryh read at Tor.com a few years ago. One of the things she pointed out was the happy endings in any of the Alliance-Union books only seem that way because what’s happening in the final pages of books are happy. In the reality of the fictional universe, things just keep going on, probably just as miserably and implacably as before. From my readings of some of the other books, I know that definitely to be the case following DbS.

 

Adrian S.

Fletcher, I will agree that the reader is given a sense about the life support being pushed to its limit– BUT I think Cherryh over plays that card; that ‘given a sense’ card.  Q refugees are moved down to Pell itself, how many?  Who knows?  How many can the planet Pell hold?  Again, not discussed.  It isn’t discussed because to put a number on it takes some of the fear away, and that would reduce the CSoD.  The same with the weapons.  That Downbelow Station has no defenses of its own, and nobody that it can rely on to defend it?  I find that a stretch.  A stretch for purposes of plot.  As is the stretch that Signy Mallory could kidnap merchanter and stationer personnel, force them to be grunt soldiers, and never think twice that they might turn on her.

As to the Q refugees, I’m afraid I just don’t agree.  Pell is doing what they can, and anybody with any sense (like people from other stations, which to a man, woman and child is what Q is composed of) would get that.  But for purposes of plot, they don’t.  For purposes of plot, the Konstantins are unwilling to give Kressich access to any of their own security staff (even though they have security staff) to enforce any kind of order. Or even bother to try to talk to the people of Q.  So it is easy for someone like Jessad to come in and stir things up.

And that really started to grate on me the further the book went on.  These flaws nearly overpowered the better parts of the book (such as the Jon Lukas’ plan was working perfectly and would have worked perfectly if he had only been able to catch Emilio and Damon Konstantin), and that, in an incredibly ironic twist, the station essentially goes to Union anyway.

 

Do you have thoughts and feelings about Cherryh’s DbS?  Of course you do!  Round six takes place in the comments!

6 Comments »

  1. Adrian, most of the points you make, the ones that dug in like barbs that reduced your enjoyment of the story, never even registered on my mental screen. Would it have been a better book if Cherryh had told you exactly how many refugees were where when? I have issues with the book myself– this style of SF is not in my wheelhouse at all– but allowing the fuzzy background details you spotted to over-ride everything that’s in the foreground strikes me as nitpicking.

    Fletcher, I’ve had major eye rolls aimed in my direction for using ‘Sense of Wonder’ in a serious conversation. Seems to be two camps here. Apparently there are some (perhaps younger) readers rather sick of (perhaps older) readers nattering on about how SF and fantasy used to be packed with this awesome element, and today’s modern, new-fangled, hoity-toity science fiction novels are all stuck up and missing that magic, and hey, get off my lawn.
    And there is also a faction that considers the term Sense of Wonder to simply be useless, a descriptor signifying nothing because everybody knows that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is Fourteen and Sense of Wonder is clearly individual to each reader, and kind of a childish and sentimental concept anyway so why don’t you just become more sophisticated and mature like me?

    This was fun. Anybody want to try another novel?

    Comment by John Hocking - July 4, 2018 5:21 pm

  2. Fletcher — If you really want to get into the heads of some azi, I highly recommend 40,000 in Gehenna either before or after Cyteen.

    Comment by Joe H. - July 4, 2018 6:07 pm

  3. John, I think it would have been a better book if someone, somewhere, had been asking those kinds of questions. That’s the kind of thing people do when they try to solve problems (and Q is a huge, unrelenting CSoD problem throughout the entire book), and without it… well… nobody can be surprised at how it goes.

    It would have also helped the reader (this reader, at least) to have understood the world(s) and how they work.

    And I get that Cherryh’s writing a book that isn’t about heroic people doing heroic things, but it isn’t heroic to ask the simple questions that real people ask. Even if the answer is “We don’t know.”

    And I think that part of why those questions don’t get asked is that, as I said, to put a number on it takes some of the CSoD away, and that seemed to be the one drumbeat Cherryh hit consistently.

    Oh! As to reading another book. I’m game. I might like a little break, but I’m totally game.

    Comment by Adrian Simmons - July 4, 2018 6:35 pm

  4. As far as CSoD, sometimes I think the platonic ideal of a Cherryh book would take place entirely over the course of a couple of hourse in a breakroom on a station, with terrible coffee, a never-been-cleaned microwave, and some chairs that never quite sit level; and it would be utterly compelling and impossible to put down.

    Comment by Joe H. - July 5, 2018 3:21 pm

  5. @Chris and Adrian – Yep, I’m up for this again, but probably not until the end of summer at least.

    @Joe H – I’m glad I wasn’t drinking anything when I read that. Seriously, it could be the greatest/most miserable story ever.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - July 5, 2018 5:14 pm

  6. When I first read Downbelow Station I had many of the same problems, I thought it was slow and I wanted more of Mallory and Mazian. And then I read Merchanter’s Luck and went back and reread Downbelow Station with a whole new appreciation.

    Fletcher V said “I actually wish Cherryh has written another fifty pages or so on the plotting done by Quen and the merchanters to put the alliance together.”

    I believe she has written it Alliance Rising comes out in January. Gonna be more than 50 pages though.

    Comment by BGrandrath - July 9, 2018 1:58 am


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