Why I Read It: I’ve been trying to read this book for years now, so when I came up with the book club theme of The Final Frontier, I knew I had to stick this title on there. Once it ended up winning, I was able to kill a few birds with one stone: read a book club book, finish my Mount TBR challenge (officially), and lastly, finish reading a book I’d put aside a few years ago. What I’d forgotten was simply how dense the book was, and in order to finish the book in time for discussion, I pretty much spent my entire Memorial Day Weekend reading. Aren’t you glad? You should be! I did it all for you!
The premise: ganked from BN.com: The Hugo Award-winning classic, now available in a trade edition for the first time.
Pell’s Station, orbiting the alien world simply called Downbelow, had always managed to remain neutral in the ever escalating conflict between “The Company,” whose fleets from Earth had colonized space, and its increasingly independent and rebellious colony worlds. But Pell’s location — on the outer edge of Earth’s defensive perimeter — makes her the focal point in the titanic battle of colony worlds fighting for independence…
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay, as this is a book club selection. There is a TON of stuff to discuss, such as why the book works, why it doesn’t, why it’s a horrible place to start if you haven’t read Cherryh’s work before, whether or not it deserved its Hugo, and the whole nine yards. If you haven’t read the book yet, just skip down to “My Rating” and you’ll be fine. Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: Whew. What a dense book.
When I originally started reading this, it was March 2009. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that February/March are low-productivity months for me. I get stuck, have a hard time paying attention to what I’m reading, and generally end up reviewing fewer books than I do other months. I’ve had to stop reading books during this period before, only to pick them up later in the year and be completely fine with them.
I never got back to Downbelow Station, because I kept telling myself I had to be in the right mood to read it. And frankly, without this book club, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten back to this title. Too many reasons to put it off until the “right time,” so despite this being an utterly difficult and frankly unfriendly read, I’m really glad that our book club finally made me dust this off.
But make no mistake: this was a difficult, unfriendly read. I’m sure my seasonal affective reading disorder wasn’t helping in 2009, but this book isn’t exactly full of grand, nail-biting adventure. Frankly, if not for the book club and my sheer determination to finish (because I’d already put it down once), this may have been my second DNF of the year. Also, it helped reading this book in BIG chunks over the period of about four days. Don’t get me wrong, this was an absolute chore. There were other things I would’ve rather been doing during Memorial Day Weekend, let alone reading other books. Yet if I hadn’t forced myself to read it in such a fashion, I would’ve nibbled and nibbled at it, which would’ve done a complete disservice to my understanding to the plot.
Let’s talk about the first major hurdle. Writing style. Sentence structure. Hell, just plain bad grammar and typos. It’s coincidental that a writer friend of mine was freaking out because she was told by her friendly neighborhood grammar monster that her own writing was virtually unreadable because she had such horrible grammar. After assuring her that was NOT the case, I told her to give that person Downbelow Station to read every time said person started turning into the grammar monster, because this book? It rides that line of unreadable because of the writing style. That’s what turned me off the most back in 2009 when I put it aside. Yet I’ve heard some people call Cherryh’s style “futuristic,” as if the shitty sentence structure was somehow intentional and we’re supposed to phrase the author for creating phrases that force the reader to go back and read a single sentence several times over just to GET what’s being said.
I don’t buy it. I’ve seen “futuristic” done well (thank you, Adam Roberts’ Gradisil), and while it’s maddening, there’s the sense that the reader is on it, you know? Cherryh doesn’t get such a pass (maybe she would have if I’d read this at the original time of publication, but give me a break: I wasn’t even a year old when this came out!). Her use of ellipses in strange random … parts of a … sentence just … about drove me completely bonkers. That’s not even half of it, and I suspect a true grammar monster could comb through this book and have a stroke before they finished marking up all the places that my former SHU mentor would label “NOT ENGLISH.” I’m not kidding: if I’d turned in a manuscript this sloppy, this messy, I think my mentor would’ve stroked out before he could fail me.
How much of this is Cherryh and how much is it the editing process? Hard to say. Kind of. The ellipses are totally Cherryh. That’s not an editing mistake. The constant shift between the names Hale and Kale for a single character, even on the same page, are more puzzling. In the introduction to my 2008 edition (Cherryh wrote the introduction in 2001), I learned that this was the book that convinced her computers were the way of the writing future, because apparently cutting and pasting was a bitch. That leads me to think the Hale/Kale problem started with Cherryh, and the proofreading team just flat out missed the mistakes. But I also hear the 20th Anniversary edition of this book (a mass-market edition) contained quite a few editing and typographical mistakes. Who knows. What I do know is that when a book is continuously reprinted, the text better damn well be reviewed carefully before it goes to press, despite it being a reprint of a book 20+ years old. It wouldn’t have solved my ellipses issue, but the Hale/Kale issues of the book would’ve been caught, as would have the random capitalization in the middle of Sentences that you can’t possibly justify in an SF/F setting (see what I did there?).
Cherryh also breaks my golden rule of POVs: one per every 100 pages. So if your book ends up being, say, 500 pages, then you’re allowed five different POVs. Granted, the length of a manuscript and book varies greatly on the format, and certainly, sometimes writers just don’t know how long something’s going to be until it’s all said and done. I’ve also read other books by Cherryh that don’t quite have this problem. At any rate, there were far too many POVs in this book. Let’s see if I can count them all off of the top of my head:
5) Jon Lukas
6) Jon’s son whose name starts with a V
7) Josh Talley
12) Omniscient, narrative overview of future history at the start
That’s just what I can remember. Maybe that’s all, but I still feel like I’m missing something.
And really, that’s just insane. I’ll grant #12 as not really counting, but the rest of it, sheesh. It’s no wonder it’s smart to read this book in large chunks, because with this many POVs, you get many threads of plot, and with that many threads, if you’re reading little nibbles at a time, it’s easy to get things crossed and confused, especially since none of the characters really stand out as super-unique. Oh, that doesn’t mean I didn’t like any of them. Damon and Emilio, while somewhat interchangeable, I looked forward to. I liked Elene quite a bit. Josh Talley immediately had my sympathies.
I’ll grant Cherryh this: despite my thinking this is complete overkill, a reader can’t complain that they don’t have the big, full picture of what’s going on. As long as you’re paying attention, you know who’s playing what and why, and you can start getting a sense of how it’s all going to come together or fall apart. But still, this is a ridiculous number of POVs for the length of the book. And it’s telling that I really didn’t start connecting to the material until differing POV characters were part of a streamlined action toward the end, like Mallory/Damon/Talley all being part of a particular thread. Instead of jumping from POV to POV with every break (and what was UP with the “Book 1, Chapter 1, section iv” nonsense? I had to start ignoring those), we started sticking with certain POVs, which was something of a relief.
It’s funny: people have been complaining about HBO’s Game of Thrones jumping around to too many characters, which doesn’t allow the viewer to really sink their teeth into a particular storyline/character. If you’re one of those people with that complaint about GoT, then know that’s how I felt about Downbelow Station.
It doesn’t help either that Cherryh really doesn’t have a distinct narrative voice in this novel. It’s rather bland, kind of deadened, with no spark of excitement or charm to pull the reader forward. Combine that with relatively flat, somewhat interchangeable or stereotypical characters, and it’s no wonder this is such a difficult book to get through.
But I’m not the only one. During my research to figure out how I would spearhead the book club discussion, I typed the book’s title into Tor.com to discover that Jo Walton had read the book for a C.J. Cherryh re-read a couple of years back. In her review, she talks about how she, too, bounced off this book the first time she tried to read it, and how it’s definitely not her favorite. She states her feelings best when she says, “…. it’s a hard book to like.”
Reading reviews on Amazon was an amazing eye-opener as well. Some people think this is the best book Cherryh’s ever written. If it is, then everything else must be horrid, but truly, I don’t think those people are reading the right Cherryh books. This was tougher to read than Merchanter’s Luck (which was my first Cherryh book and it takes place after the events of Downbelow Station), and I far prefer Cyteen to this any day, and it, too, was challenging to read as it harbored the same writing/grammar issues.
So in all honesty, I feel it’s pretty safe to say that Downbelow Station is not the best place to start reading Cherryh. Ironic, since when I first tried reading this back in 2009, I found myself ticked that my other writing mentor at SHU assigned me Merchanter’s Luck instead of Downbelow Station, because Downbelow Station, plot-wise, had more to teach me than the slim volume of Merchanter’s Luck. Of course, I don’t think that now. I’m glad I’d gotten a few books under my belt before tackling this one, but for those of you where this was not the case, I’m sorry. I think I need to do a bit better research when it comes to future SF selections for book clubs, because these older, classic novels can most certainly try someone’s patience. Lord knows they’ve certainly tried mine.
Though I couldn’t help but wonder: how is the experience of reading Downbelow Station as a jaded SF reader/modern SF enthusiast differ from reading it when it was a brand-spanking new release? Reviews on Amazon kept asking: how did this even qualify to win a Hugo, let alone actually win one? I think the answer has to do with the climate and temperature of SF at the time this book came out. I haven’t read the other winners from that year, mind you, but I recognized half the names. It’s tempting, in a way, to track those books down and compare them to Downbelow Station, to see if I agree with those voters from 1982. But regardless, I do think there’s something to be said about SF readers back in that day and what they had and had not yet had a chance to read. Modern, jaded SF readers have a larger spectrum of SF to compare this book to, citing later authors and later titles as superior. All well and good, but those books weren’t published when this came out. And one has to wonder: just how much did Cherryh’s work inspire those latter authors? I don’t have an answer for that, by the way. I’m just throwing the question out there as food for thought.
Bear with me, I’ll start wrapping up, I promise.
Content-wise, I want to point out a few issues. For starters, I have to point out the numerous dead-ends of the tale. Things almost happen, but don’t. I found a great review on Amazon that explains this in detail (read the full review here; it may be a one-star review, but it’s utterly detailed and thought-provoking): Pell starts out as a neutral station and ends up a neutral station. There’s a whole lot of headache and heartache for things to end up remaining the same. There’s that phrase, you know: the more things change, the more they stay the same, and that certainly describes Downbelow Station to a tee.
Oh, sure, some things have changed: Mallory’s no longer with the Fleet. Union is making an Alliance with Earth, and Earth itself is under attack from the Fleet. Some people died. I had to question the purpose of the hisa, aside from being the noble savages that give the good guys as well as the reader something to root for. Then there’s Alicia, whose storyline ties into the hisa, but who really doesn’t do much of anything. One can argue that her marriage to Angelo is what started driving Jon Lukas away and making him power-hungry, but she could be dead and the same thing would be accomplished. The only thing gained by keeping her alive via machine is to make Jon Lukas that much more heinous, because he’s willing to destroy something despite knowing it could kill family.
Then there’s the end: some people call the merchanter’s little ploy at the end a deus ex machina, but you know what? I learned something new today: those people are wrong.
A deus ex machina literally comes out of NO WHERE. There is nothing in the book that supports it even happening. And you can’t say that of Elene’s trick on the Union. Her POV supported it, which makes the actual ending of Downbelow Station a “eucatastrophe” (thank you, Jo Walton, for bring the term to my attention): a eucatastrophe is a term coined by Tolkien which describes an event that pulls the characters out of impending doom, but said event is established within the framework of the story.
So there you go! Next time you want to whip out the term deus ex machina, take a step back and make sure you don’t have a eucatastrophe instead.
But whatever you want to call it, while I admire the rather uplifting and optimistic way Cherryh was able to end her book, I wondered just how plausible it was. On one hand, it made sense: Union needed the merchanters, but yet, if Union could grow their own Fleet, couldn’t they grow their own merchanters? Maybe this is explored more fully in later books, but for now, I think it’s a rather valid question.
My Rating: 4 – Problematic but Promising
This is such an incredibly difficult book to rate, because however many difficulties you had with reading, you can’t argue that Cherryh fails to create a full, fleshed-out world. Sure, the characters could stand to have more meat on them, and certainly, the plot is quiet and intricate and it takes a long while before things click into action, and even then the action moves at a slower pace than one would expect for a book about war. And certainly, despite this being a book club pick, I would not recommend this being a starting point for any reader wanting to get into Cherryh’s work. Not by a longshot, and even then, I’d say this book is best read by those who consider themselves students of the genre and/or those who are well-versed in the Alliance-Union Universe and/or Cherryh’s work and know what to expect. I’ve read better by her, but her writing style is always a chore for me to get through, and this book was so dense that I resented the fact I spent my entire Memorial Day weekend plowing through it. This is not a book that you give to the SF newbie, hoping to turn them on to the genre. If you’re wanting to turn them off the genre, then go ahead. But this book isn’t for beginners.
The funny thing is, I’m finding myself tempted to start an Alliance-Union reading project one day and read the rest of the series. This isn’t a series in the traditional sense, because there is no book one, no book two, no anything. They’re pretty much mix and match, and it works fine either way (and that’s coming from a self-professed chronology nerd). I can see myself sitting down and really getting into this complex SF universe Cherryh has created, but truth be told, it’s going to be a few years down the road before that happens (I want to read through de Lint’s Newford books first, as well as Bujold’s Vorkogisan series). Though I’ll probably finally get around to the long-awaited sequel to Cyteen before I get around to reading the rest of the series as a whole. Hell, finishing Downbelow Station was my personal prerequisite to reading the sequel of a different book that’s been sitting on my shelf for years now.
If you’re a serious reader of SF, and you’ve read Cherryh before and you’re wanting an intricate, political/corporate space opera, you could do a lot worse than Downbelow Station. But it is a taxing book, and you have to be devoted to reading it. I’m not kidding when I say you should try other Cherryh books first (you can see Jo Walton’s recommendations of where to start here) before you tackle this one, because this one definitely needs tackling. It’s a fascinating portrayal of how wars get started and how negatively said wars affect those right in the middle. I’m glad I finally sat down and read this, even if I resented the timing of it. It’s a book that rather boggles my mind, because on one hand, there’s so many difficult elements to like, but on the other, Cherryh is painting a fascinating picture, a fascinating world, and even if the characters are a little stiff, some are still worth rooting for.
And if you REALLY love this book, you can always get your hands on the 1983 board game. No, I’m not kidding.
Cover Commentary: I really, really like this cover. It’s got a modern feel, and I like the elegant simplicity. Fact: I bought this to replace my unread mass market paperback edition (cover seen here) because I liked the newer cover better and it matched my copy of Regenesis. If that’s not a testament to my cover art preferences, I don’t know what is.
And as you already know, the June Book Club selection is Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Some of you may have started it already, but if need additional details on the title, just click here.
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