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.

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Black Gate Book Club, Downbelow Station, Fourth Discussion

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018 | Posted by Adrian Simmons


Welcome back to the Black Gate Book Club! We are rapidly closing in on C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station (DbS).  You can get to speed with the first, second, and third rounds.

Adrian S.

Fourth round!

Okay, page 285 and Fletcher, you are right that things are (finally) happening quick. The Union Fleet has dropped into the system, and the Company Fleet and the militia go out to meet them.  I like the idea that all the ships look the same on scan, whether they are jump-capable merchanters or in-system merchanters, or Fleet Carriers or whatever—they all look the same until they maneuver or start to fire.

Jon Lukas has become the bad guy that he was hinted at with a full murderous take-over of Downbelow Station.   Of course, he’s made a choice on which side he’s on, gambling that the Union is going to win, and from there getting roped into helping Union win.  This puts him with a lot of targets on his back.

Kressich is in the exact same boat, but with more targets on his back, he’s terrified of his people in Q, and terrified of his own security, but once the shooting starts, he is one of the few people who has security and has people.

The relationship of the “leaders” to their armies/militias is interesting.

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Black Gate Book Club, Downbelow Station, Third Discussion

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018 | Posted by Adrian Simmons

Welcome to the second round of discussion on C.J. Cherryh’s classic 1981 novel Downbelow Station. New to the program? Check out the first and second rounds. We lose Chris on this one, perhaps a casualty of a bad Jump from the Beyond. Fletcher and myself carry the standard of the Black Gate Book Club as best we can!

Adrian S.


Third round! And it is appropriate that I just started book 3 of DbS.  I’m on page 190, so I have surpassed my previous record of 169.

What can I say at this point? Well, my guess that conspicuously-absent Admiral Mazian was, in fact, behind the destruction of several company/neutral stations has borne out to be true!  I guess the big game is to try to force the Union to take control of these damaged stations and spread themselves too thin?  And to put all their resources at a station called Viking—the only 100% working station in Union space, I guess?  And to attack/destroy/cripple it and thus break the Union.

Of course, Union seems to be playing the same trick — forcing the refugees all to Downbelow Station, which has now become the one 100% working station in Company space.

So that’s what the power-players are doing, and everyone else is just running around between their feet.

I like how Cherryh illuminates parts of the plot, then occludes other parts. The sudden retreat of Mazian’s fleet from the Viking attack — was it due to Ambassador Ayer’s orders, or some other factor?

But again, I have to say that Jon Lukas, who does the right things for the wrong reasons, is still coming off as one of the only active people in the book. Honestly, how hard is it to get on the goddam PA system and say “Yes, the fleet is coming, no we are not all gonna die, keep calm and carry on.” Hard enough that only Jon Lucas can do it and keep Downbelow Station from tearing itself apart in a panic!

Satin, the Downer now working on Downbelow Station, is also active in that she is following her vision-quest thing regardless of what the older Downers and the Lukas-men and everyone else thinks.

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Black Gate Book Club, Downbelow Station, Second Discussion

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018 | Posted by Adrian Simmons

Downbelow Station UK-smallWelcome 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.

Chris Hocking

Hi people,

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.

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Black Gate Book Club, Downbelow Station, First Discussion

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018 | Posted by Adrian Simmons

Downbelow Station-small Downbelow Station-back-small

Welcome to the very first post of the Black Gate Book Club!  What are we up to?  As Fletcher Vredenburgh said in his introduction to the Book Club:

The plan is to read Downbelow Station over the month of June and post a discussion of it each Monday afternoon. This time around, the Book Club participants will include Adrian Simmons, Charlene Brusso, Chris Hocking, and me. We’d love it if you’d read along with us and join in the conversation.

Of course, it is now Wednesday, not Monday, and Charlene had to bow out of this round because life intrudes. Never the less, Vredenburgh, Hocking and I soldiered on! Below is our exchange:

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Announcing the Black Gate Book Club: Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

Monday, May 28th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_2755519pv4ckfCiLast year, when I reviewed C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur, Adrian Simmons mentioned he had been thwarted by her Hugo-winning Downbelow Station (1981). That led to him suggesting another go at it, but this time with the impetus of a reading group to spur him on and to discuss it. Thus the idea of the Black Gate Book Club was born. It’s taken a year to actually get around to getting this off the ground, but here we are.

For forty years, C.J. Cherryh has been a powerful voice in science fiction. Her work is noted for its “intense third person” style, where only things noticed by or of importance to the point of view character are included in the narration. Her science fiction is notable for its complex and detailed societies and its relative hardness.

Many of her books are set in the Alliance-Union universe. By the 24th century, humanity has spread to the stars. While Earth, overpopulated and culturally and economically stagnant, is ostensibly in charge of the merchant space stations and the few planetary colonies, that is not actually the case. Under the direction of a scientific elite, the planet Cyteen has declared its independence. In response, Earth has built a massive fleet of military vessels and sent them out to retake Cyteen.

Downbelow Station opens in the late days of the consequent war, when the forces of Earth are in retreat from the seemingly invincible fleets of Cyteen. Downbelow Station, a trading orbital above a planet in the Tau Ceti system, becomes the focal point of both military forces as well as a nascent third one: the independent merchants.

The plan is to read Downbelow Station over the month of June and post a discussion of it each Monday afternoon. This time around, the Book Club participants will include Adrian Simmons, Charlene Brusso, Chris Hocking, and me. We’d love it if you’d read along with us and join in the conversation.


Vintage Treasures: Merchanter’s Luck by C.J. Cherryh

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Merchanter's Luck-small Merchanter's Luck-back-small

Merchanter’s Luck (DAW, 1982). Cover by Barclay Shaw

I haven’t covered many C.J. Cherryh novels in my ongoing Vintage Treasures project, and that seems like a serious oversight. Cherryh was a constant presence on the paperback racks in my youth. She sold her first novel Brothers of Earth to Donald A. Wollheim at DAW in 1975; since then she’s published more than 80 science fiction and fantasy books, including the most ambitious and successful first contact saga in science fiction, The Foreigner Series. Volume 21, Divergence, arrives in hardcover next week.

I recently picked up a copy of the author’s 1982 paperback original Merchanter’s Luck, and I thought it would be a good place to start. It’s the first novel in her Company Wars saga, set in the Alliance-Union universe where humanity has split into three space-faring power blocs: Union, the Merchanter’s Alliance and Earth. I remembered Jo Walton’s review of Merchanter’s Luck from a decade ago, enticingly titled “A girl on a haunted spaceship.” Here’s an excerpt.

Ben JB and I were talking about Gothics, and Ben JB asked if you could have a Gothic on a spaceship. My immediate response was Merchanter’s Luck, a 1982 novel by C.J. Cherryh. It has a girl and a haunted spaceship and a mysterious man with lots of secrets in his past. But on re-reading it, I have to admit that it doesn’t quite work as a Gothic… Allison is far from a gothic heroine — she’s empowered, and most of the time in the novel she is the one in the position of power. She goes onto the spaceship and goes into abandoned cabins, full of the possessions of the dead, but she doesn’t go alone. She’s not virginal, not isolated, and never helpless…

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The Most Ambitious First Contact Saga in Science Fiction: The Foreigner Series by CJ Cherryh

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

CJ Cherryh Foreigner 10th Anniversary Edition-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 2 Invader-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 3 Inheritor-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 4 Precursor-small
CJ Cherryh Foreigner 5 Defender-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 6 Explorer-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 7 Destroyer-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 8 Pretender-small
CJ Cherryh Foreigner 9 Deliverer-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 10 Conspirator-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 11 Deceiver-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 12 Betrayer-small
CJ Cherryh Foreigner 13 Intruder-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 14 Protector-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 15 Peacemaker-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 16 Tracker-small
CJ Cherryh Foreigner 17 Visitor-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 18 Convergence-small CJ Cherryh Foreigner 19 Emergence-small CJ Cherryh

Art by Michael Whelan (1,2,6,7), Dorian Vallejo (3), Stephen Youll (4,5), Donato Giancola (8,9), and Todd Lockwood (10-19)

I like to talk about SF and fantasy series here, and last week I dashed off a quick article about a 9-volume space opera that caught my eye, Lisanne Norman’s Sholan Alliance. The first two commenters, R.K. Robinson and Joe H, both compared her novels to the queen of modern space opera, C.J. Cherryh. That certainly got me thinking. Like Norman, Cherryh is published by DAW, and as I said last week,

For many years DAW’s bread and butter has been extended midlist SF and fantasy series that thrive chiefly by word of mouth… You won’t connect with them all of course, but when you find one you like they offer a literary feast like no other — a long, satisfying adventure series you can get lost in for months.

More than any other writer, Cherryh may be responsible for DAW’s success with space opera. She’s been associated with the publisher for over four decades, since her first two novels, Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth, were purchased by founder Donald A. Wollheim in 1975. Cherryh has produced many of DAW’s top-selling series, including the popular Chanur novels, the Company War (including the Hugo Award-winning Downbelow Station), The Faded Sun trilogy, and especially the 19-volume Foreigner space opera, perhaps the most ambitious and epic first contact saga ever written.

C.J. Cherryh became a SFWA Grand Master in 2016, and the Foreigner books are perhaps her most celebrated achievement. The first, Foreigner, was published in 1994, and has remained in print for the last 25 years; the most recent, Emergence, arrived in hardcover last year, and was reprinted in paperback less than four weeks ago. Four of the books were shortlisted for the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and all 19 titles remain in print today.

If you’re truly on the hunt for “a long, satisfying adventure series you can get lost in for months,” Foreigner — all 7,200 pages of it — may be the most important literary discovery you ever make.

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That’s All (for now)

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

The Way I Feel

The Way I Feel

Over five years:

55 Short Story Roundups, each of at least four stories, making for a minimum of 220 reviewed. It’s probably at least half-again as many.

157 Book Reviews, including 11 books by Glen Cook, 7 by PC Hodgell, 7 by Andre Norton, 6 by TC Rypel

12 Essays

That’s how much I’ve written at Black Gate since my inaugural post, The Best New Sword & Sorcery of the Last Twelve Months. I should also add I co-wrote a review of Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood books with Howard Andrew Jones and conversed with Adrian Simmons and Chris Hocking on the subject of CJ Cherryh’s award-winning Downbelow Station. I’m happy with most of the posts I’ve written and actually proud of more than a few of them. I bring this all up because I’ve decided it’s time to hang up my sword for at least a little while. I’ve reached the point where readingreviewingediting every week has become a grind. In fact it’s been a bit of a hard slog for a while now, which is why I mixed things up with classic sci-fi last year and the entirety of Glen Cook’s Black Company series this year. Both of those undertakings were a lot of fun. It’s been years since I’ve read any of those books. Some, like Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, I had never read ever. Still, it wasn’t enough to thwart this hiatus.

Don’t get me wrong, most of the time doing these posts is a tremendous amount of fun. Discovering writers I didn’t know or had forgotten all about (or discovering those I had once loved who were better left forgotten) was a blast. If I hadn’t done these posts I probably would never have read Paul Kingsnorth or Tim Willocks or made friends with scores of fellow S&S fans out in the digital wild. Even the weakest books I read still offered me something: how to find the best parts of something bad and how to treat an author’s efforts with respect even if the end result was poor.

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July-August 2018 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: A Review

Thursday, September 27th, 2018 | Posted by Adrian Simmons

Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction July August 2018-small

Having just come out of the 1969 Retro-Reviews, AND Black Gate Book Club’s 1981 Downbelow Station, I wanted to dip into the modern SF/F scene a bit before starting the 1979 Retro-Reviews. I delved into Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2018. I’ll be talking about the fiction and poetry in this review, spoiler-free, but skipping book review columns and such.

This is a somewhat special issue, with stories inspired by (or matching) the excellent Bob Eggleton cover art “Big Mars.”

“The Phobos Experience” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Darlene Ritika works on the Bradbury Space Center, orbiting Mars, in this alternate history tale. She is hiding a severe case of vertigo from her superiors and co-workers and gets called out by the Man to go to Phobos and find an entrance to a series of secret caves. They find a cave, but discover they are not the first people to be there. A slow-motion chase/fight ensues in the low gravity. With the heart of the story being such a slow scene, the story in its entirety seemed really rushed to me.

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