C. J. Cherry‘s Downbelow Station is old enough to be safely called a “classic”. It won the Hugo for best novel in 1982. According to Wikipedia, Locus Magazine in 1987 considered it among the top 50 science fiction novels of all time. Recently, maybe obscured by the bulk of its sequels, the book doesn’t seem to get quite that level of adulation. The Guardians recent 1000 Must-Read Novels list contained maybe 140 SF books and left this one out, though they included a few more recent novels (for example, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) that I don’t expect will stand the test of time as well as Cherryh’s.
It is probably those sequels that have kept me from reading this for so long. I’ve been aware of the book, and seen it recommended, for probably 15 years. But I’ve never felt I could spare the decade I’d need to read it and its more than 20(!) sequels.
The book starts with a long-view history of space exploration by the commercially motivated Earth Company and the founding of various stations colonies, leading to the point where the colonies surpass the homeworld in technology, and become divorced from it in culture. Finally the Beyond forms its own government, called Union, and rebels against the Company. Years later, the central story starts as the Earth space fleet is reduced to a few harried ships, and Union is on the brink of taking over all the known worlds.
The story involves the Union advance on Pell’s World, the closest station to Earth, and one of very few (maybe only two) to be in a system that also contains an inhabited planet. Multiple factions vie for control of the station, and most of them are ruthless enough to destroy the station if that’s the only way to keep it out of the hands of their rivals. Refugees from other recently captured or destroyed stations crowd Pell’s, creating an extra set of problems for Pell’s more benevolent leaders who are the most sympathetic characters we see. Frustratingly, the story basically ends in a stand-off, brokered by the space merchant (“merchanters”) faction, creating a balance of power that presumably sets the stage for all those sequels.
On the other hand, what the novel has going for it is an intense pace that kept me engaged throughout. By keeping each chapter focussed on the viewpoint of one character, we appreciate the motivations of even the least sympathetic characters. There are few villains here, aside from a clan of self-serving Pell aristocrats who are only minor players in the multi-sided conflict between Union, Company, fleet, station, and merchanters. And for the more appealing characters, the focussed narration creates a strong identification with their difficulties and moral dilemmas.
I don’t know of another author who can match Cherryh’s combination of characterization and intense narrative. Richard K. Morgan delivers a wilder roller-coaster ride of a story, but builds it mostly on explicit violence and cardboard characters. Neal Stephenson can also combine an intense story and interesting characters, but his intensity always seems to come somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Cherryh’s narrative rarely takes a break for humor, keeping a relatively serious tone, even if her themes are perhaps not earthshakingly weighty.
Overall, an enjoyable read, and well worth the time spent, especially for the experience of Cherryh’s unique narrative voice.