‘Driven mad by crowding and uncertainty’: Downbelow Station by C. J. Cherryh

downbelowI tried reading a couple of C. J. Cherryh’s books (Foreigner and something else I can’t recall now) about 10 years ago. Could not get through them.

My bookgroup, through a semi-democratic process, decided on Downbelow Station for next month*. Well aware of my past record with Cherryh, I eyed the 500-page volume with some trepidation.

Apparently, I needn’t have worried. I got through it (I know, a ringing endorsement). Maybe it was me, maybe it was the book itself. The reason I’m not saying I liked it or that it changed my mind about Cherryh is because I still find her writing somewhat dry. The beginning of Downbelow Station is a mountain of exposition. If you manage to climb it, you’re (mostly) in the clear. Very often the narrative followed the clipped ‘and then some things happened’ route. Cherryh’s style seemed too terse overall, and I had difficulty picturing what was happening in my mind. I did not like Pell’s aliens. I’m somewhat willing to forgive the ‘primitive but friendly’ native population thing due to 1981 pub year, but still. It’s not 1881 pub year.

It did help that I was obviously in the mood for some thick sci-fi when I picked this one up. Sometimes you need a book with lots of spaceships, trade routes, and the resulting complicated politics. In that regard, Downbelow Station succeeded. It is a book set against a backdrop of two entities, the Company and the Union, engaged in an interstellar war. Ships arrive, asking for permission to dock at Pell’s orbiting station. And arrive. Some with civil unrest on board, bringing more and more problems to an already overwhelmed station. There are many parts to the plot, and some of them seemed confusing or unnecessary (who are those guys who took the spaceship to talk to the Union people? I still don’t know). It’s one of those books where you feel the urge to visit Wikipedia to just figure out all these story arcs. Basically, Downbelow Station is rather like a 19th-century novel. It is sprawling. It is not particularly fast-paced. It is mostly about people and people’s interactions. And yet, the book often felt to me like a giant game of chess, distant and mostly about the mechanics of play rather than the pieces themselves. It didn’t  help that most of the people in it were fairly unpleasant.

It was a bit of a slog until page 250 (hey, I still have trouble abandoning books). Somewhere right in the middle of the novel, however, the book changed. The pieces were in place, the character creation part was done, now we could actually play. And at that point I found myself unable to put the book down. The last 200 pages I read almost in one sitting. Plus, the ending went quite far in redeeming the book in my eyes.

While I was not entirely enamored with Downbelow Station, I might read some more books set in the same universe. I might go on to Cyteen and Regenesis. Or maybe the Faded Sun novels that my coworker has been trying to get me to read for years.

 

* I felt like I was violating some sacred rule of my bookgroup by reading this book at least 3 weeks in advance, as opposed to the night before the meeting. I did wait till after the bookgroup to post the review.**

** No, I am not going to explain ‘semi-democratic’.

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