Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh
Company Wars series #1 – Alliance-Union universe
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My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
First Published: February 1981
Read from: October 1, 2014 to January 26, 2015
Awards: 1982 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Downbelow Station: Classic Sci-Fi & an Inspiration to BSG reboot?
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I haven’t been reading much if any for the last two months. I participated in (and won) NaNoWriMo in November 2014, and since then have been doing more writing (and working) than reading. But I can never go too long without reading and so I picked up half way through this book where I left off a couple of months ago. The long delay in the middle may have effected my review a little negatively. But I still really liked this book.
Part of my judgement of this novel may be colored by the sequel to this novel, Merchanter’s Luck, which I have read several times in the past, and is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi stories. Despite the number of times I’ve read Merchanter’s Luck I have never read this first book (that I recall anyway). According to C. J. Cherryh’s introduction at the beginning of this edition, it seems she started to write Merchanter’s Luck first, stopped part way through, and wrote the novel which became Downbelow Station to wrap her head around the “universe” she was envisioning.
Published in the early 80’s, I would still call Downbelow Staion a bit of “classic” science fiction as it contains a lot of features from the earlier stories by greats like Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein. However, it is primarily a character driven sociological and political sci-fi, though it does have aspects of military and hard sci-fi space opera. It also introduces some interesting technology and begins to explore their implications. For the most part the story examines life on an over-crowded city during a time of war. The city in question is a large space station orbiting Pell’s World (known locally as “Downbelow”), the first and one of the few habitable worlds discovered as man began to expand into the galaxy. The major issues it touches on are the dangers of martial law and crowded refugee situations.
There is of course faster than light travel in the form of the “Jump Drive”. This form of travel and its limitations have effected the interstellar civilization that has developed, one feature of which is large “merchant” families who spend their entire lives aboard ships travelling from star to star moving the goods and people that make the civilization work. Other interesting future techs are explored. The world includes “rejuv” (a form of life extension), and human cloning. One character in particular shows the effects of subliminal conditioning, personality programming, and memory transfer (collectively known as “tape”).
The characters for the most part seem a little shallow and similar (all the good guys like to hold hands and the bad guys are all about their personal power). But their are some interesting characters that are at least a little more complex. My favorites are: Signy Mallory, the female captain of the Earth Company military carrier ship Norway; and Joshua Talley, a memory-wiped Union prisoner captured by the Earth Company and living a new life on Pell. The character of Damon Konstantin, one of the family high up in the government of Pell is also fun (if a little shallow), as all the Konstantin characters seem a little too heroic and “do-goody” for my taste.
The story starts slow and builds slowly with occasional bursts of action. At the climax though things get really interesting. As I mentioned the story around the character of Signy Mallory I found the most enjoyable, and it reminds me in some ways of the arc of some of the military characters in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series which followed much later, starting in 2003. The original Battlestar Galactica which came out in 1978 really does not relate to this story. But a number of “gritty” elements of the rebooted BSG seem to expand on aspects of Downbelow Station while setting it in a different universe. Besides the military aspects much of the sociological aspects seem similar. There is the same type of political drama, the conflict of ideologies, and a story that deals heavily with martial law and crowded refugee situations. I wonder if any of the series writers had read this novel, as it would not surprise me at all if it was one of the many influences to that show.
Any highlights I made on my old Kindle from the first half of this book seem to have disappeared, despite regular backups. But here’s some cool quotes from the last half of the book. Potential spoilers ahead. You have been warned.
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