Sunday, April 5, 2009

Downbelow Station (1982)

Subgenre: Space opera, politics

After three novels and about 2000 pages, I've come to the conclusion that I just plain don't like C.J. Cherryh's novels that much. Essentially, all of my objections to Cyteen apply to her first Hugo-winner Downbelow Station, but there are fewer good bits. Downbelow Station is set in the same universe as Cyteen, and describes the origin of the balance of power in that novel, the war between Earth and far-space interests, all from the perspective of a single, supposedly neutral space station. Like in Cyteen, we get dumped into a complex political situation with history-book exposition, and after a while it sort of blends into sameness. Some of this is a genuine knock on technique, and some a matter of opinion, and I'll try to break down my problems with the book into those categories.

Part of my frustration came from the organization of the novel; I often felt very little sense of place in the story - the hooks to keep the reader focused weren't very good. This is not because of the sheer size of the book, because though Cherryh's novels are long, they have a fairly narrow scope, never seeming as epic as similar character-filled politics-fests like Red Mars. Once again, this meant I didn't really enjoy the book until about two hundred pages in. It's difficult to connect to the book immediately because the characters aren't really given meaning apart from the grand politics of the novel, and so you don't understand their motivations until you acclimate to the world, and you don't acclimate to the world because you don't care about the characters. It's a vicious circle. It sounds sort of like I'm demanding training wheels for my books, but I don't think that's so. Even a classic slow-starter like The Name of the Rose pulls you into the characters faster, and the Song of Ice and Fire series handles more characters and politicking than Downbelow Station without blinking.

The other reasons I have for not enjoying Downbelow Station that much are less objective. I just don't seem to find the same aspects of science fiction appealing that Cherryh does. A large part of the appeal of scifi is its ability to present genuinely new ideas, even if they wouldn't work in the real world. Cherryh can do this - her take on redesigning humans in Cyteen was compelling - but large portions of her novels are devoted to political machinations that are depressingly familiar. Resource wars in space are still resource wars, and refugees are still refugees. It seems a great way to write - put realistic people in a new situation, and ask "What happens?" - but if it doesn't tell you something new, why do it?


  • Boy, finding another intelligent alien race didn't seem like a big deal. "Okay, we're not alone in the universe. Let's get us some servants."

Hugo-worthy? Not in my opinion. After a while, I got into it, but it really suffered by comparison to David Brin's Uplift series, which were the next books I read. Downbelow Station rates a C+.

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