A network of space stations that span from Earth to deep space; rival factions in open and covert conflict; and a population of aliens and civilians caught in between. These elements and more feature in the epic 1981 sci-fi novel Downbelow Station.
Carolyn Janice Cherry published her first novels in 1976. She began using her initials to disguise her gender, as other women in science fiction commonly did at the time. In a more unusual twist, she appended an “h” onto the end of her name, in response to suggestions that the surname “Cherry” made her sound like a romance novelist. Both of the novels she published in that first year, Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth, are loosely connected to Cherryh’s grand SF setting, the Alliance-Union universe.
The setting is an intimidating prospect. Between 1976 and 2019, Cherryh published 27 novels in the series, split across no less than nine sub-series, and with more underway. The books cover a wide span of time, from the 21st century out into the far future. While the books are very varied, they broadly focus on the affairs of humankind in deep space, the conflicts between various human factions including the titular Alliance and Union, and encounters with a number of alien races. To read them all would be a major undertaking - at least, as Cherryh has explained, they can almost all be read in any order.
Luckily, that means that Downbelow Station is more accessible than it otherwise might be. Published in 1981, the book is one of Cherryh’s most acclaimed - notably, it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. It is one of the cornerstones of the wider Alliance-Union setting, but is definitely a satisfying read in its own right. This will be particularly true for fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Babylon 5, as Downbelow Station is a classic, and complex, space station story.
By 2353, humans have built a long chain of space stations beginning in our own solar system and extending out into deep space. Each station acts as a waypoint, helping to gather the resources necessary to construct the next link in the chain. A critical turning point in the novel’s backstory occurs when a planet with life is discovered in the Tau Ceti system - Pell’s World, known colloquially as “Downbelow”. This new world challenges the status of Earth, which is no longer the only source of agricultural production.
As time passes, those people who inhabit the “Beyond” - the so-called stationers, merchants, and residents of the growing number of living worlds that have been discovered - lose their ties to mother Earth. This development of a human culture which is anchored to an alien world, and indifferent to Earth, is critical to the story.
By the time the novel begins, the residents of the station adjacent to Downbelow are in a perilous state of neutral independence, caught between three factions. The monolithic Earth Company still desires to control the Beyond, but has only a handful of personnel in the area. The Mazianni are the remnants of an Earth Company fleet which has gone rogue, under the command of Conrad Mazian. Finally, there is the mysterious Union - headquartered on the planet Cyteen and pursuing disturbing technologies such as the production of obedient, cloned soldiers.
Following the unexplained subversion or destruction of other stations, a large number of refugees are brought to Pell Station under the dubious protection of the Mazanni vessel Norway, under the command of Captain Signy Mallory. At least one refugee ship, the Hansford, is in a state of deadly riot even before it docks at the station and hundreds are killed. As the novel progresses, a political struggle plays out between the three factions, with key events occurring in space, on the station, and on the planet itself. Until the novel ends, it is an open question as to who will control the station - or whether it will even survive.
Downbelow Station is a complex, and fairly lengthy novel. When it was originally published in 1981, SF books tended on average to be significantly shorter than they are today. Cherryh was concerned that her book would have to be cut, or even split into two volumes. Ultimately, her publisher DAW Books released it in full, in a larger format than they had used before. The publisher also worked with Cherryh to add a system by which the book is divided into “books”, then chapters, then sections. Each of these sections, which are rarely longer than ten pages, is given a specific date and time when the action takes place, and a specific location.
While these subdivisions make Downbelow Station easier to follow, it’s a novel that demands quite careful concentration. The book has an ensemble cast, and has omnipresent narration that tracks around ten main characters. The wider cast is very large, spread across a number of locations. Also, Cherryh’s writing style is quite dense - often, it can seem that every sentence is in some way critical. Like Isaac Asimov before her, Cherryh doesn’t describe people, places, or ships. In reading Downbelow Station, your imagination is certainly given a workout.
All of this may make the novel seem, in its own way, almost as challenging as the prospect of taking on the whole Alliance-Union universe. However, Downbelow Station is a consistently fascinating and rewarding story. The scenario is quite bleak, but it provides Cherryh with the opportunity to include a great deal of complex scheming by its cast of often cynical, hardened characters. The station itself may not be described in visual terms, but still comes across as a believable, living place. The desperation of the refugees, and the oppressive architecture of the various docks, living quarters, and seedy bars is palpable.
Another major strength of the novel is how thoroughly worked out the setting is, and particularly the radically differing worldviews of the three principal factions. Downbelow Station is far from black and white; it’s a troubling moral universe full of shades of grey and all of the factions and many of the characters seem to have both admirable and reprehensible qualities. Union have broken away from the exploitative authorities on Earth, but their production of a sinister clone army is unsettling. Signy Mallory, captain of the Norway, is fiercely independent and rigorous - but also ruthless. The novel grew out of a process Cherryh began to create the fictional backdrop for the Alliance-Union series - and in this mass of intricate detail, it shows.
While humans dominate the narrative, there is an alien element. Pell’s World, or Downbelow, is home to a race of intelligent creatures known as the hisa, or downers. These characters are one of the weaker aspects of the novel. The hisa are presented primarily as particularly intelligent apes - with short, hairy bodies and a seemingly apelike social structure. They speak in a kind of broken English, treat certain humans with a blind reverence, and provide shelter and support to the more sympathetic characters. While they do provide interesting moments, the hisa aren’t as well crafted as they could be and certainly aren’t one of the more memorable species in SF.
Another weakness of the book is the relatively interchangeable nature of the human characters. Although the novel unfolds over more than 425 densely packed pages, this doesn’t give Cherryh the room to develop such a large cast thoroughly. Many characters seem less like believable people, and more like mere cogs for the plot - another similarity with the works of Asimov. To be fair to Cherryh, her prose is certainly nowhere near as cold and functional as that of her predecessor. The characters may not be the most memorable, but the story is far more engaging than something like Foundation (1951). The most intriguing characters are the most mysterious ones, such as the Union agent Jessad and the freed prisoner Josh Talley.
Reading Downbelow Station today, it is easy to understand why the novel was so acclaimed upon its first release. Cherryh is tremendously ambitious with the scope and detail of her narrative, and yet manages to deliver it in a satisfying way. The book is undeniably dense and complex - keeping up a good pace while reading it is advisable in order to keep the events straight as they unfold. For the same reason, the novel is probably not a good entry point for those who are new to science fiction. However, for those with a few SF novels under their belt, and are looking for something more challenging, Downbelow Station is a fine choice.