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This was the 29th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in June 2021.
This is my Hugo winner for the month, as Downbelow Station won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1982 and I had much the same reaction to it as I did to its predecessor, Joan D. Vinge's The Snow Queen, the winner in 1981, and, to a lesser degree, to Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise, which won in 1980. That reaction was to enjoy the book, but at a sort of distance. None of these books was able to truly grab me and keep me turning its pages, so I read each of them in dribs and drabs over a longer period of time than I'm used to. It took me three weeks to work through The Snow Queen and I'm happy I persevered, but I seriously doubt that I'll ever read it again. And that holds true for Downbelow Station.
There's plenty of good here, as you'd hope there would be for a Hugo-winning novel, starting with worldbuilding and choice of setting. There are a lot of books in Cherryh's "Alliance-Union universe" and there were a few when she wrote this one too: the first three books in The Morgaine Cycle, a couple of Hanan Rebellion books and the Faded Sun Trilogy, as well as Serpent's Reach, so this appears to be book nine but is accessible to new readers like me, in part because of a brief history that opens the book in stripped but conversational tone.
The human race was born on Earth but it's expanded beyond it. Ships went out and built stations in other solar systems. Pell was the ninth of them, the first to be created around a living world with a local population. Eventually Earth loses control; and the Company, which did all this work, with it. A long way away from us is the Union, based at Cyteen, which has found new paths, severed ties and there's war in all but name. Stability comes and a sort of line forms to divide territories, but jump tech shows up to make interstellar travel much quicker and the distances shrink. Now it's Union vs. the Company fleet, a real war, and Earth gets insular. The focus inevitably shifts to Pell, which has neutral status. Earth owns what's nearer, Union owns what's farther and Pell sits in an increasingly dangerous position in between them.
And I really like this, because, while this is absolutely a space war novel, we don't spend much time in the company of either side and, when we do, it's generally not conducting space battles. There is a little of that, but we spend most of our time on Pell station, trying to go about our business in an acutely difficult time. The people in charge have to find room for shiploads of refugees, whose own stations have been destroyed. They have to deal with spies and activists from both sides. They even have to deal with occupation of their station and then the withdrawal of the occupying force.
What's more, they have to deal with how this affects Downbelow Station, which isn't a station but the planet below it, which is habitable but not 100% Earthlike and the home of the Hisa, the local population. With no room left on Pell, refugees are shuttled down to the surface and Downbelow quadruples in size by page 100. As you can imagine, this is a massive impact to both the station and the planet in almost every way: socially, logistically and culturally.
I also appreciate that the information flow is almost a vacuum. Unlike so many other novels and a majority of their screen adaptations, people just aren't kept in the know. The residents of Pell and Downbelow have little idea what's going on. What's Earth up to? What's Union up to? Increasingly, what's the Company fleet up to, because it becomes a third side in this war? And how is any of this going to affect them? As I haven't read any of those earlier novels, which may not speak to this war anyway, it wasn't difficult to choose my side and my side wasn't any of those three. I was always on the side of the people of Pell and Downbelow, just as I was with the people of Luna in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Where this got complicated was in the way that Cherryh doesn't depict these station people as an entirely united force. She avoids simplicity and appropriately so because, while Pell is a tiny speck in the grand picture of this interstellar conflict, it's a vast world to its residents, one large enough to generate its own sides for its own reasons. The most obvious we see is between the Konstantins and the Lucases. The Konstantin family have run Pell for a long time but the Lucases, connected by marriage, don't like how they run it. Both sides think they're the good guys, though it doesn't take a lot of time for us to figure that dynamic out, and both sides want control.
As with The Snow Queen and earlier Hugo winning novels like Lord of Light, Stand on Zanzibar and The Left Hand of Darkness, I liked this but I appreciated it more. I liked the ideas behind them and the willingness on the part of the authors to do something different. Like those books, I expect this one to stay with me for a long time, to haunt me with its ideas that sit percolating at the back of my brain, popping up with an insight when I least expect it. These are books that have potential to change me and the way that I think, the way I see the big picture.
However, like them, I can't really say that I enjoyed this. None of these books are ones I'm going to sit down and read for pleasure, the way I'll happily go back to Way Station or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Dreamsnake. I connected with some of the characters here, like Emilio Konstantin of the ruling family, who's tasked with managing Downbelow, and Vassily Kressich, who becomes the voice of the quarantined refugees on Pell, but most, even when they might be considered to be on the side of right, are rather unlikeable. I found that I cared more for Pell itself than I did for most of its inhabitants. I found that I cared more for the Hisa population than I did for the humans who dominate their world.
Part of this is a good thing, because Cherryh writes complex characters and I appreciate that. This is never good guys vs. bad guys because the good guys have flaws and the bad guys have strengths. I felt for some of the bad guys when they ended up in untenable situations that they, quite frankly, deserved to end up in. My sympathy for them came through the realisation that they're pieces in a chess game so vast that they can't even see the board. Rarely have I seen written characters come to such a stark realisation that they're chess pieces and it's dehumanising. Again, I appreciate not necessarily enjoy.
Part of it is a bad thing though, because Cherryh also writes dry characters. Sure, this novel unfolds at a time of particular tension, but it does so in dry prose and dry dialogue and dry reaction. There is no humour to be found here, except perhaps in the uncertainty of Joshua Talley. He arrives as a refugee but is clearly more than that, probably a Union spy. However, he chooses to be effectively brainwiped, to have his history and motivations removed from his brain so that he can continue on as a free man. He's probably the most complex character here, given what he ends up discovering about himself, but he's also the only one with the remotest aspect of humour. By the end of this, I was aching for humour which, after all, often manifests itself in the direst of situations, just as the natural human response to adversity. Cherryh didn't want to go there.
And so this is a magnificent achievement. It doesn't surprise me that it won the Hugo and was also nominated for the Locus, though it wasn't even nominated for the Nebula that year, which was won by Gene Wolfe's The Claw of the Conciliator. I admire it and I appreciate it and it may affect me in time, but it took me a long time to finish it and I can't say that I enjoyed the process. Let's see what I think of Cyteen, which won Cherryh a second Hugo for Best Novel in 1989 but again failed to even be nominated for the Nebula. I presume, given the name, that it's set on the Union side of this war and I look forward to that, because I'd like to learn more about them.
Next month, though, I'll be returning to a book I haven't read in a long time. Foundation's Edge is the fourth book in Isaac Asimov's pivotal Foundation series and it's another long book, as thick on its own as the trilogy that preceded it decades earlier. I liked the thinner originals and I also liked the three thicker later returns to the series, two sequels and a prequel. I realise now that there's a fourth return, a sequel to the prequel, which was published posthumously. I'm interested to see if I appreciate them as much in the new millennium, with perhaps thirty years of personal growth and experience.
Last update: 15th August, 2021