Take one highly vulnerable space station. Pack it with realistic characters. And then start a war. You'll end up with 1982's Hugo winner, Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh — and a hell of a story.
It's always worth taking a second look: I read Downbelow Station a few years ago, and remember vaguely enjoying it and then forgetting almost entirely what it was about. So it was with some trepidation that I picked it up again. If it didn't make an impression the first time through, would the second be a drag?
No, it turned out, it would not. This book doesn't have any flashy-cool technology, or superhumans, or phenomena beyond the ken of mortal understanding. It is set a few centuries in the future, but the characters are for the most part people like today's. And though it takes its title from a space station, you could argue that the novel could be recast in a non-science-fiction format — set on Earth in the present day or past — without altering the basic story too terribly much.
Maybe that is why it didn't stick with me on the first read. Flashy-cool technology, etc., tends to be what initially lodges in my brain. But this time, scrutinizing the book a little more thoughtfully, I appreciated how smoothly, how economically it sets up interesting, plausible conflicts, and then stirs them together in a reasonably orderly fashion, while still conveying what an atrociously unreasonable mess life turns into during wartime.
This is the first book of Cherryh's Alliance-Union series; she started out simply intending to come up with the backstory for what would be her next novel, Merchanter's Luck, and ended up with another full-blown book. Here's a quick rundown of this future history:
Humans, in the form of the privately held Earth Company, started colonizing the galaxy by building huge space stations in a chain of star systems extending away from ours, out toward the Beyond. Ships, moving at near-light-speed, ran a long trade loop: They carried essential organic materials to the stations, and brought mined minerals back to Earth. Because those organic materials couldn't be grown well in space, Earth remained the controlling power in the Great Circle.
And then Pell's World was discovered, the first inhabitable planet besides Earth — and one that already hosted intelligent life, the primitive, monkey-like hisa. (Later, the humans on Pell station started calling the world "Downbelow," from the hisa's pidgin English.) Now that there was another, closer planet that could supply the stations in the Beyond with biostuffs, Earth's grip on trade began to weaken. It tried to hold on, the stations resisted — and a quiet conflict began.
More life-supporting planets were discovered, and then on one, Cyteen, the faster-than-light jump drive was invented by the Beyonders. That enabled them to work together more easily, and eventually, they joined forces, calling themselves Union.
When Downbelow Station opens, full-on war between Earth and Union has been in swing for some time, and Union — with better technology, able to mass-produce cloned soldiers in vats — is winning. The Company fleet has been reduced to a ragtag guerrilla force, all but disowned by an out-of-touch Earth. Its ships survive only because they operate as near-independent units, striking at Union quickly and then retreating into hiding.
If there is a driving theme of this book, it is the clash between independent desires and the good of the group as a whole. The story begins with the Company's Captain Signy Mallory forcibly docking at Pell to drop off six thousand refugees from two other stations, recently all but destroyed. For years, Pell has served as a neutral zone on the border between Company and Union space; with the arrival of the refugees, that fragile neutrality starts to shatter.
The refugees are crammed into a locked-off quarantine section ("Q"), as they're frightened and in some cases violent, and most lack any identification — Pell can't risk a secret Union agent running loose in a vital area. Rapidly, the situation in Q devolves into one of everyone for themselves; when Vasilly Kressich, a former official from one of the ruined stations, tries to instate some sort of order, he unwittingly becomes the figurehead for a gang of thuggish ex-police.
Like an infection, the circumstances spread throughout the station and down to the planet below. War, and a population swollen by six thousand unexpected guests, means shortages of everything: resources, living space, mere time. Such acute scarcity turns people into rats, scrambling over each other heedlessly to bite at whatever's available.
And the inertia of it all imposes impossible decisions even on those who want to improve it: Stationmaster Angelo Konstantin can't afford to do much for the refugees — he has Pell's own population to take care of first — and so Q festers like a sore, one that will eventually erupt.
The unwillingness to share extends most critically to information: A group of Earth Company representatives allegedly wants to broker a peace with Union — but really, they're trying to buy time so that their forces can regroup. The Company fleet is supposed to be protecting Pell as a critical strategic point — but their leader, Conrad Mazian (who beats out Vannevar Morgan from The Fountains of Paradise for most awesome name in a Hugo novel so far), determined to defeat Union at any cost, has different plans.
There is even a hint that the story's villain, Jon Lukas — Angelo Konstantin's brother-in-law, and long jealous of that more successful family — has been shaped in part by a lack of community goodwill. Jon is certainly an awful man, selfish and suffering from an inferiority complex, focused on brutal efficiency, and only interested in people, even his own son and heir, as means to an end. But he is also highly able, and one gets the sense that his bitterness toward Angelo is at least a little bit justified, that the stationmaster really doesn't care for Jon and has shut him out of important decisions at times. In any case, Jon is an interesting bad guy — not exactly like Arienrhod from The Snow Queen, but similar, in that you can tell implicitly that he is a wounded thing, a person who went wrong somewhere but didn't have to. (He is vaguely Shakespearean, I'd go so far as to say; there is a pivotal "Et tu, Lukas?" moment, anyway.)
Cherryh tells the story in limited third-person, moving from character to character. (So we get inside Jon's head enough to know that he is intensely dislikable, but into Angelo's enough to guess that he has a gotten a little comfortable in the seat of power, and would rather have his brother-in-law accept his orders uncritically than try to communicate with him.) We spend a lot of time with Damon Konstantin, head of legal affairs on Pell, and I think it would be easy to assume that he is the protagonist (not least because he is a young man, and that demographic makes up the bulk of SF protagonists). Damon's story is more illustrative of the general point of the book — the moral, I guess — though:
He spends the whole book trying to maintain order on Pell (his job title is a symbol), and expends a lot of energy in the service of others. He's particularly committed to helping those who are weak: There's Josh Talley, a Union prisoner of war left on Pell by Captain Mallory, who has undergone Adjustment — mind-scrubbing to remove any dangerous information or violent tendencies. Damon and his new wife, Elene, befriend him and vouch for him again and again. And then there are the alien hisa, or Downers. Unlike most humans, all of the Konstantins treat them like sentient beings deserving of basic rights.
Damon's treatment of Josh and his relationship with the hisa eventually prove essential to his survival. As civilized society falls apart, his refusal to abandon the people and principles he cares about is what saves him. That is true of other characters, too — his brother, Emilio, who leads the workers and refugees on the planet below; his mother, Alicia, beloved of the hisa; Satin, a Downer who has come up to the station to honor a human who sacrificed himself saving hisa lives. And so is the converse: The characters like Jon Lukas, who think purely of themselves, ultimately find themselves needing help and with no one they can rely on.
Metaphorically, Damon does go through a transformation — near the end of the story, the onetime head of legal affairs is running Pell's biggest black-market operation. But if any one character really, truly changes in the course of Downbelow Station, it is Signy Mallory.
We know from the outset that the Company captain has some sort of conscience — after all, she rescues the refugees at no small risk and delivers them to Pell. But we also know that it has been warped and stunted: She has a reputation as a sociopath, and when she kept Josh Talley in her own quarters aboard her ship, Norway, though it was nominally to prevent him from being murdered by the other refugees, she used the opportunity to make him a sex slave, and not in a fun way. ("There was a sordidness in her sometimes, a need to deal wounds...limited murder, to blot out the greater ones. To deal little terrors, to forget the horror outside.")
She is a weirdly, deeply interesting character. She is selfish and proud — but it manifests itself as a possessive love of her ship and crew, and her maintenance of their high standards; it's a selfishness and pride that compel her to think of other people. (And her troops love her for it.) She is cold-blooded and vicious — but, one senses, it's because her passions run so strong that if she didn't turn her heart off almost entirely, she'd be unable to do her job. She is a loner, but it becomes unmistakably evident that other human lives matter to her, more than she'll openly admit.
By the end of the novel, her situation has changed profoundly, more than anyone else's. (And she will figure into the events of Merchanter's Luck, in a big way.)
This is a story about individuals trying to find a balance between unrestricted self-interest and a loss of self to the larger group. (Union represents the latter, although they are more complicated than mindless drones; from the thoughts of Company rep Segust Ayres on his first visit to enemy space, in Chapter 2: "...he had not expected the difference out there, had not expected the Union mentality, which seemed to slant off toward some angle of behavior neither parallel nor quite opposite to their own.")
It takes a long time to find that balance; doing so means suppressing instinctive fears, consciously combating our drive for self-preservation. But it happens, gradually. And Cherryh is so good at making it happen that I teared up when it began to, with an exchange between Elene, part of a merchanter family that died at one of the stations lost to war, and a merchanter captain who has been desperately trying to stay out of the crossfire.
"So we hang together, captain," she tells him. "We move together."
Neihart considered it a moment, finally nodded. "The Neiharts will stand by your word."
There: trust. And piece by piece, things begin to turn around.
The only other Cherryh I've read is her first novel, Gate of Ivrel, from her Morgaine series. It was awhile ago, but I recall thinking it wasn't bad, that she was clearly trying to do more, especially with the characterization of her protagonist, Vanye, than most F&SF authors were at the time (or even since). On the strength of that book alone, though, I don't know that I'd have picked up another of hers.
That would have been stupid. It's always worth taking a second look, and it's fascinating to see an author's style evolve. If you're interested in writing, there's a lot to learn from Downbelow Station — purely structurally, just look at how it takes one massive event and extracts so much story from it, simply by examining how it affects so many lives. And then look more closely at how elegantly Cherryh shares the necessary information about her people and environments. I'm not quite sure how to condense what she does into a simple description, but it strikes me as a qualitative step forward for science fiction.
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Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.