22 August 2012

Downbelow Station

Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh
1981 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: Public Library
426 Pages

A few centuries from now, commerce has spread throughout space.  It has spread so wide and become so robust that Earth no longer controls the unfathomably large market.  In response to Earth Company’s failing hold on interstellar commerce and technology Company and Union Fleets begin warring.  That war scatters refugees throughout space, and particularly to Pell Station, known as “Downbelow Station”.  This leaves us at the tail end of a hard fought war with thousands of quarantined refugees, Pell natives, Merchanters and of course, Company and Union ships all vying for the same space in a rapidly crowding space station.

This book is absolutely not to be read through speedily and yet, that is exactly what I’ve done.  The result is that my stupid and inconsistent compliance with my own stupid and inconsistent rules has probably ruined my first read of what could have been a really great read.  Okay, maybe not ruined, but it has kept me from an appropriately thorough read of one of the densest books to date.  My faster-than-light read through a packed universe left me with only glimpses and I struggled to fully comprehend nuanced relationships and the weaving of tangled political intrigue.  As a result, I’m not sure this will function much like my normal reviews, but instead as an attempt to make sense of my first and briefest of impressions of this SF treasure.

As it were, my first read (yeah, this is going to have to be considered my first…of many) has left me conflicted.  Partly exciting, partly confusing and entirely too dense for a 7-day read, Downbelow Station truly has all the elements I would expect in my favorite science fiction.  I loved the interplay between not only the Company and Union ships, but also the Merchanters and “Downers”, in fact I think they were the two groups that most interested me.  I loved how much raw information there is to take in.  I’m not sure that makes much sense, but there is constantly a sense of the possibility of absorbing even more subtlety and detail from the story.  In this way, I was sometimes reminded of the Star Wars universe of novels.  While the Galatic Empire and Rebels fight for control of the galaxy, there are also so many smaller worlds and aliens and bounty hunters and smugglers who are all jockeying for their piece of the pie and also their position in the fallout.  The greatest assets of Downbelow to me were exactly that wealth of perspectives and the depth and detail of which it is up to the reader to determine how much they can handle.

Yet, as much as all these elements roused considerable delight, they also caused me great consternation.  Some of my trouble surely came from my inattentiveness during the last week (I was dead tired every day) and my too-fast pace, nevertheless I will discuss some of those concerns in the hope that some of you who have also delighted in the heft of Downbelow’s pages, can guide me as I approach my second read…sometime in the future.

One of the elements I was most conflicted about was the sentient species on Pell.  It’s hard to create an alien that I don’t like.  I’m a sucker for them – from Kzin to Heinlein’s Martians, to the totally unknown of Pohl’s Gateway, but at first, I thought Cherryh would break the trend.  Especially in the first half to three quarters of the book, the aliens, heck the entire cast, struck me as insipid if not just straight-up ill-conceived.

My first impression of the Aliens was that they were essentially humans (I had failed to pick up on their hairiness, though that doesn’t add a whole lot anyway) with a funny way of speaking and who were severely out-paced, technologically and culturally by the humans.  I guess I just felt like they should seem more interesting and I would have loved them to be, but I didn’t have anything to grab onto except maybe their speech pattern of dropping of a pronoun on occasion, which really just highlighted how lame they began in this story.

However, after 400+ pages, my concern was mitigated by the Downer’s performance and cultural quirks.  I began to see that there was more to the species and appreciated the placement of Downers on Pell Station.  I thought there was a lot of potential there, and though I’m not sure I was satisfied with the eventual development of the Downers, it at least went some way to redeeming an element that threatened to really disappoint me.

Upon reflection, my take is not necessarily that the characters and specifically the Downers were all that bad, but that Cherryh’s style is to emphasize the vast web of interrelationships rather than the juicy details about a person that I normally look for.  Instead she just saves that for a bulky sections of exposition.

I think where I still take issue with Downbelow Station is in some of the dialogue and curious grammatical techniques that seemed to me, utterly ineffective and surprisingly drab.

If I were forced to sum up my experience of Downbelow Station in one word it would unequivocally be: awkward.  It’s awkward for its characters, whose speech seemed colorless and out of touch sometimes.  Consider a section from final pages of Chapter 3 Section I in which Angelo Konstantin learns of merchanters having places in the deep of space to hide from impending danger and his wife says:

“You’d leave?”
He shook his head.  “Never.  Never.  But there’s still a chance of talking the boys into it, isn’t there?  We persuaded one to Downbelow; work on your youngest; work on Elene…she’s your best hope.  She has friends out there; she knows, and she could persuade Damon.”  He pressed her hand.  Alicia Lukas-Konstantin needed Pell, needed the machinery, equipment a ship could not easily maintain.  She was wedded to Pell and the machines.  Any transfer of her entourage of metal and experts would be public, doomsday headlined on vid.  She had reminded him of that.  I am Pell, she had laughed, not laughing.  She had been, once, beside him.  He was not leaving.  In no wise did he consider that, without her, abandoning what his family had built over the years, what they had built, together.  “It’s not close,” he said again.  But he feared it was.
Pg 133

This was a good example of both how insipid these characters can be and also how gut-wrenchingly dull their dialogue.  They are talking about sending their children away and the fate of Pell and not only is there absolutely no feeling whatsoever, but the narrative almost immediately shifts to their concerns for themselves and abruptly flips between consideration of first Alicia, then Angelo.  As a parent, I was struck by how quickly the subject turned from the fate of their children to some really quite dull motivations for staying on station.  This type of thing bothered me throughout.

And then there was the awkward grammar and punctuation.  This was something that I really tried hard to make sense of, but I’m still curious to hear what other people thought.  Throughout the book, there is inconsistent or ineffective use of alternative punctuation which upon first encounter created lilting, if not completely jarring, sentence structure. 

She realized suddenly the aspect of the distant faces, behavior not panic, but hate; and weapons—pipes, clubs—
Pg 262

I am no advocate of strict adherence to grammar and punctuation guidelines.  I shudder to think how many times I have broken rules on this blog.  In fact, I own a number of books that I enjoyed especially for creative use of space and punctuation to add tension, excitement, whatever.  Where I struggled with Downbelow Station was in that sometimes the creative grammer had me stumbling, re-reading, and stumbling again.  Other times it was just annoying.  On one page, which included a break for a chapter heading, ellipses were used 5 times.  I didn’t see any benefit other than to infuriatingly halt up my reading pace.

My favorite example of how just ineffective these techniques seemed came in a sentence (sorry I don’t remember where) that instead of using a comma preceding a quotation, used a semi-colon.  This was an instance where I didn’t feel particularly stressed, but totally confused.  So confused that this was the point in my read when I decided I needed to hear how others read this book.

I read through some of these weird sections.  Then I listened to them.  Then I read along, while listening at the same time (You can see how far this week departed from trying to comprehend anything resembling plot, setting, character’s names or anything important to someone who would want to say they’d “read” a book.  Still, I knew I was struggling and wouldn’t ever be able to catch up with what was happening, so I wanted to be sure that I knew what I liked and didn’t like about the way in which this book was written, so that I can approach my impending re-read with a thoughtful and less stupid methodology.).  The effect on the audiobook was also completely lost.  Many if not all of the instances I took issue with, were completely unnoticeable in the audiobook.  Of course this could have simply been a choice by the production company, but it kept me scratching my head.  I love it when authors play with the English language, but here I was mostly confused.  I ask you, what did you think of it?

Perhaps I didn’t have enough time for this book.  No, not perhaps.  I did not have enough time to devote to this book and it seriously affected my enjoyment.  Nevertheless, something is strange about the grammar and punctuation (and even sometimes the dialogue) in this book and it is so strange that it made me sort of not like it.

In the wine world they say that if you are using the same words you hear others use to describe your wine, you are probably lying.  In the case of Downbelow Station, so many reviews blather about the realistic and strong characters and the action packed pages.  I’m not going to say they are wrong or lying, but in my first read, it was the characters that were drug, kicking and screaming throughout the novel until at the very end when the tension and excitement and action finally forced them to stand up.  And with that said, though there were moments of action throughout the entire novel, the tension only built at a barge’s pace, the action never really grabbing me until the very end when the book stayed exciting for a maximum of about one hundred pages straight.

There are moments of really awkward prose and there are moments of breathtaking clarity.  One of my favorite moments involved the description of a ship slowly coming to pieces and though it was just a brief description; the passage struck me as one of the best conceived and most poetic in the entire 400+ pages.  Though it doesn’t sound like it, I enjoyed this book, especially toward the end.  I just didn’t feel like I got a firm enough grasp of it to form any kind of worthwhile opinion of it.  With that said, take my HEP score with a gigantic grain of salt.


Universe 4/5
Social/Political Climate 4/5
Dialogue 3/5
Scientific Wonders 4/5
Characters 3/5

Overall 18/25

The die being cast…
This week’s book is Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh.  I hope I have better luck with this one, though I have no idea how I’ll ever finish on time.  I guess I should say goodbye to my family for the week.

Next week’s book is Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov.  Asimov’s third Hugo Award in four decades.  Wow.


  1. Yeh, for me it was the same. The novel only became enjoyable near the end. I did enjoy some of the characters, but they were ofttimes overshadowed by the labored political intrigues. I guess it's a good book, but I can't quite appreciate the excellence others have bestowed upon it.

    1. That is probably an equally good one-word description: Laborious!

  2. I remember really liking Downbelow Station; it was the Cherryh novel that got me hooked on Cherryh. I'm curious to hear how you liked Cyteen. THAT was the one that I started several times before I got far enough to feel it was worth it. Cyteen's pretty near the top of my list now, but Cherryh's still got her faults, some of which you bring up here about Downbelow.

    I think she's got more talent as a prose artist than many of the other Hugo winners; but like you say, she also inexplicably uses frequent awkward constructions that force you to reread and still end up scratching your head.

    And while you didn't rate the characters really high here, again I'm curious to see what you say about Cyteen, which probably lives or dies by whether you think she did a good job with the character depth.

    Also, it took me a LONG time to make it all the way through Cyteen. I can think of only three sff novels that took me longer: Red Mars, The Once and Future King, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

    1. A MAJOR reason I struggled with this one was the extremely short time I gave myself to finish it. As you say, one really needs to spend time reading and re-reading some sections and I didn't have that chance. Would I have liked it much more given more time? I'm not entirely sure, given some of my issues. Given that I'm enjoying Cyteen a lot more and I'm reading it A LOT slower, I'm thinking it's possible I would have taken more from Downbelow Station if I had read it slower.

      I had mixed feelings about the characters. I was reading so fast and there were so many characters that to be honest, I had a really hard time stringing the different plot lines together and the characters all kind of fell apart. I think that was my fault, however, there were some moments which I mentioned in the review that really left me scratching my head.

      I hope that someday I have the energy to tackle this one again because boy, I just don't know how I should feel about it.

      Regarding Cyteen: I've taken something like 3 weeks so far and I'm nowhere near finishing this week so I'm with you. I can't remember any book from any genre taking me this long to finish. Granted, I am reading multiple books simultaneously. Like. An. Idiot-King.

      Thanks for your thoughts on this one. It was a real head scratch-er for me and I'm glad to hear from someone who liked it. It makes me feel more inclined to open it back up some day.

  3. So this is one I seem to have liked a lot more than you did, despite the fact that I had some of the same problems with it as you. For example, very few of the characters are really all that memorable, and I liked very few of them.

    What Cherryh did really well, in my opinion, was creating a believable and interesting universe. I really read this more as a history book than a regular work of fiction. In that respect, the universe is the main character, and all the people and events are just parts of it. For me, that made it work really well.

    I also liked the Downers quite a bit. If I remember correctly, their description was something like an upright gibbon. Long arms and legs, really furry, and bipedal. Their worldview and personalities were different enough to be alien without being ridiculous, something that made them feel very real to me.

    As far as her writing, I didn't have the same problems with her grammar and style that you did. In fact, I didn't even remember that the book was written that way until you mentioned it.

    Overall, while not as good as Cyteen, and some of her other works, I still really liked this one.

    1. I do hope that I'll give this another shot some day, especially after enjoying cyteen so much. I also hate that the biggest reason I didn't like this was external to the book itself...

  4. Hi Jeremy, I'm struggling through DS and thought I'd reread your review. I'm struggling with her grammar and punctuation as well. She did it in Cyteen too, in DS it's a lot worse. One of my biggest gripes is that she likes to begin sentences with "Of a sudden..." instead of "All of a sudden." And of course there's ellispses, commas, and semicolons. Oh my! And her prose is just leaden to me. I'm at page 150 and just dreading the next 300. I'm really counting on the last hundred pages to get this book above a single star rating. Well, I guess I just gave you the kernel of what my review will look like :-D While I didn't like Cyteen as much as you did, I definitely feel it's better in all aspects so far: characters, prose, plot.

  5. Phew! Finished it. It did pick up in Part IV. I'll have my review posted in a few days. I'm glad I read it, but I'm soooo glad I'm done.

  6. I also found the first reading to be slow and frustrating, but moments of brilliance kept pushing me to read on. After reading more books invthe Merchanter Universe and then coming back to Downbelow Station, I found it a completely different book, and found it suddenly riveting and emotional. It's the one book that ties all her other books together, the ultimate middle child of her catalog. But it's just like Cyteen in that you get way more out of it on each re-reading. Currently read it six times and it was like six different books. If you read this and hated it, but kinda also liked it, but weren;t sure why, that's normal. Give it another go. It will surprise you.


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