Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The Hugo winner for Best Novel of 1981, Downbelow Station is the first book in a series known as the Company Wars, which in turn is a subset of the Alliance-Union universe, a vast collection of future history novels. A few were written before this one, but are set later in the chronology, as well as in different areas of space. A short prologue details Earth's first interstellar probe, the discovery of another world, uninhabitable but rich in minerals. A space station is established around this world to exploit its resources, but also to plan further expeditions. Eight more worlds are discovered, new stations built, more wealth shipped back to Earth Company, a private conglomerate formed to relieve Earth governments of the expense of exploration. Then came the ninth world. Named for the ship's captain who found it, Pell's World was not only habitable for humans, it was already home to the first life forms discovered off-Earth, the hisa. Pell Station is built in orbit, with Downbelow Station established on the planet for mining and agricultural projects. Hisa prove to be amenable to working with humans, whom they seem to consider almost god-like. A few, more enlightened and sympathetic humans, form a bond with the hisa, work well with them and honor their ways, others are typically condescending and only refer to hisa as Downers.
The hisa are a gentle species, with no knowledge of war or agression, but news of the aliens worries Earth. There's no guarantee that other, more dangerous species would not eventually threaten humans. While Earth Company worries about its future, more expeditions are organized by Pell Station itself, reaching further into the black for more worlds. All of this has occurred over several centuries, with the inhabitants of these far-flung stations losing any sense of affiliation or loyalty to Earth. Eventually, another group is formed in the Beyond, known as the Union. Those worlds make great advancements in science and technology, and because the number of their worlds is growing, so must their population. Birth-Labs are created for the rapid maturation of cloned individuals, each group trained and conditioned for specific tasks. The merchanter class emerges to trade goods between worlds, while Earth Company makes desperate attempts to consolidate its influence, demanding taxes from all other worlds. Union objects of course, since Earth Company has had no involvement in their enterprises. Earth transforms their freighters into warships, and the inevitable conflicts begin. The main action begins in the year 2352, with the Company Fleet returning to Pell with refugees from several Beyond stations destroyed by Union. Pell has tried to maintain its neutrality between the two warring factions, something that proves to be increasingly more difficult.
Quite a range of story possibilities, multiple character viewpoints, different social and political ideologies, lots of action. How does Cherryh handle the task? Sometimes admirably, sometimes awkwardly. She tried to do too much in a novel that is longer than necessary, wastes time on side plots that end abruptly, with one major story point left unresolved. There are six other books in the sequence, so that might resurface. It's also mis-titled, since most of the story takes place on Pell Station, not Downbelow. There's no reason this one couldn't have been divided in half, giving more opportunity for character development and exposition. It starts slowly since she has to introduce so many different people and different ships and locations. It can be confusing at first, as it takes a while to understand which characters are the most important, which ones are the admirable, sympathetic ones. A few it seemed she was developing in a positive way later shattered that trust. It helps that most chapters are very short, so you don't get lost in long passages before the action gets back to other settings and characters. An interesting character is killed off very early, but I wanted to know more about him since it would have shed more light on the hisa, who had a high regard for him. There were times I felt dialogue and descriptions were awkwardly phrased, but it's possible she was going for a language with slightly different syntax than modern English. Some might have been typos, which abound in my copy, both misspellings and punctuation mistakes.
Cherryh has been very prolific throughout her career. This was her tenth novel in her first five years of publication, and not even her first award winner (one short story Hugo + John W. Campbell Award). I've only read two of the earlier ones, with little memory of them, thus can't say if this was an improvement or not. Basically, too much plot, not enough character development or intropection into motives. Of the seven other books nominated for the Hugo and/or Nebula that year, I've read five, and I'd rank at least three of them (maybe four) higher than this.
The author's website - cherryh.com
Her bibliography at Fantastic Fiction
Wikipedia on the Alliance-Union Universe
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