Thursday, May 31, 2012

Downbelow Station

It's time for another fifth Thursday review, this relic courtesy of a friend who's been pestering me to read this author for months now. I read Cherryh's Faded Sun trilogy years ago and vaguely remembered enjoying it, so I gave this one a spin and ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Surprisingly long and intricate for the pagecount (432 pages)
Publication: 1981 from Daw Books
Premise: The station of Pell stands in neutral territory between the Earth-based Company Fleet and the Union, which has taken over the outermost stars. The two sides are at war, but the Company Fleet is run by Mazian, who long ago stopped taking orders from Earth and is willing to resort to desperate measures to hold the Union back. The people of Pell and the planet below are caught in the middle, forced to take in refugees and pass on supplies, and there is no guarantee that they can preserve their neutrality, or their lives.
Warnings: implied offscreen sexual assault
Recommendation: If you're partial to intricate worldbuilding, particularly with plenty of politics mixed in, give this one a try. It does move a little slowly, though, so don't go into it expecting standard space opera. 

What makes this one feel so beautifully detailed: 

Cherryh does a brilliant job of weaving so many perspectives together; most novels feel ambitious verging on cluttered with three or four points of view, but Downbelow Station touches on easily ten different characters while managing to make most of them feel like fully realized people. It's interesting to see that almost everyone is at least early middle-aged, in contrast to the normal sci-fi spread of young protagonists and grizzled old mentor figures. These are people with plenty of life ahead of them but also quite a lot invested in their careers and in some cases children; duty may drag them in all directions, but they have anchors attaching them to the lives they've built. The sections and chapters dance between people on all sides of the conflict, some powerful and some only being pushed around. The only perspectives we don't see are those of ranking Earth and Union leadership, which subtly biases the reader to favor the middle parties in the conflict. Given that Sol seems to not care about exploration and the Union also practices cloning and Adjustment (a form of personality reprogramming that also removes some memories), there's not really a sympathy-inducing side to begin with. 

That being said, the issues are complex enough that it's hard to pick a side that ought to win, or one that's clearly holding the moral high ground. The Union's totalitarian leadership is dangerous, but Mazian's Fleet is just as dangerous in its own way to civilians and not everyone on Pell can be trusted either. The Konstantin family is morally solid in a way that's both compelling and almost contrived; the sense of honor seems to be nearly genetic and the members of the family don't display many human flaws. Conflicts grow more interesting, however, when members of the family have to decide who to trust and how to deal with the harsh necessities of war. Refugees pouring in from other stations need space and food, but providing that means stretching Pell's resources and cramming existing residents into smaller spaces while trapping the refugees in quarantine. This means that the station residents are safe from riots and looting, but innocent refugees are also victimized by the growing gangs that take away everything from food to the identification papers that might provide a hope of escape. There truly is no way to be fair to everyone through fun lateral thinking, which is the normal escape in science fiction, and that adds an edge of realism to the world.

The environments in the novel contrast with each other quite well, from the planetside life in the domes of Pell to the constantly moving military life of Captain Mallory and the other members of Mazian's Fleet. Pell Station rests halfway between the two, without the sweeping expanse of Pell itself but with more luxury and stability than the ships. Captain Mallory notices all the decorative luxuries of the station when she visits its offices; while the station has no real military might, it has the space to have things that are just for decoration or comfort in a way that the members of fleet have all but forgotten in their hit-and-run raids. The merchanter ships provide an interesting sort of clannish middle ground; they all trust each other and respect family names, hanging together against conscription from Mazian's Fleet and the prejudice of people on planets and stations. On some level they're civilians, but they also stand outside that framework because of their economic power; interstellar trade has flourished, but it relies on those ships to move everything. 

Mazian's Fleet itself makes for an ethically complex set of people. They want to resist the Union, but they're willing to go to very dark lengths in order to do that and deny resources to the oncoming invasion. Captain Mallory of the ship Norway, by far the most morally ambiguous character, has served loyally for years out of respect for Mazian's strategic genius, but when the fleet draws together after years of acting independently in the depths of space she's caught in several dilemmas. Mazian wants the fleet to act together under one set of rules at the expense of discipline, and when Mallory guesses his plan and wants to be in the inner circle, their egos clash violently. She has tortured people and never apologized for it, and forced civilians to simply cope with the military instead of negotiating even when their safety was at stake, but the true test of her character comes when Mazian prepares a strategic move that will harm the Union but also be devastating to the people that they've theoretically been trying to protect.

A lot of the other characters are well-written without standing out against the background, but both Elene Quen and Josh Talley shine beautifully in the way that they bracket Damon Konstantin. Damon himself is a good man trying to do right by the people on the station, while Elene Quen is a merchanter who chose to stay with him for a few months to see if she could accept station life; her ship was blown up when one of the other stations collapsed, leaving her without any living family. She mourns believably, but she also wants a child from Damon to help continue her line and make it easier to get revenge in the future; he hesitates at first but later agrees, meaning that she's pregnant and straddling the merchant-station line at the most dangerous of all possible times. She sometimes worries about losing the child, but she's not willing to stop or compromise or hide when so many lives are at stake. 

Josh Talley is a former Unioner who was mentally damaged in interrogation, further traumatized by Mallory before being dumped on Pell, and later requested Adjustment to remove himself from those memories. It would have been easy to write him as a perfect victim trying to recover in the world, but his selves balance perfectly; his old life has left him with dangerous impulses, and his new life has made him fiercely loyal to Damon, who approved his request to Adjustment. His story does a great job of weaving back and forth across altered states of mind without ever losing the thread of his personality. The three character all want to protect each other, even when respect for each other or danger makes it impossible to do so, and the dynamic between the three more than balances Damon's fits of blandness.

The red pen: 

The shifting perspectives that make the novel feel like it's happening in a real, morally grey world also make it hard to relate to any individual characters. Some work well, like the Konstantin brothers and Mallory herself, but others seem to be there just because Cherryh needed to show something from a different angle. Jon Lukas's sections, for example, feel dull and closest to conventional villainy; he doesn't respect the religion and needs of the Downers, he hates the Konstantins, and he's willing to sell out Pell's people in order to gain power over them. He doesn't really change or grow in any way, only become more anxious about what he's doing and have the same thoughts over and over; he doesn't even have any regard for the well-being of his own son, which shifts him pretty firmly into kicking-the-dog territory. That son and the negotiator from Earth also fall flat, not really doing anything but providing plot-nuggets and emphasizing that the Union is full of bad people. 

There are also some problems with the way plans shift without warning, and that's all the more disappointing given how interesting the situation is. One minute the goal of Earth negotiations is to win certain concessions, then it's to save time; first Mazian's Fleet is determined to hold out with Pell as a final base, but then the plan is something completely different. Each individual twist works well enough, but the justifications often feel shaky or contrived, and that undermines the sense of thing spiraling inevitably; the flow of the plot could be much smoother on those counts with just a little more explanation. There's not much follow-up about why and when things change, and it often makes it feel like we're being told that Mazian is a strategic genius while being shown that he's kind of predictable to the most competent people on the Union side. Given that Mazian's main two character traits are pride and strategic genius, slashing away some of the genius makes him just arrogant with a side of ruthlessness masquerading as creativity.

All the rest of the problems pale in comparison to the Downers, or hisa. Every now and then an author has the gift of writing a completely pacifist race that doesn't make me bored witless, but Cherryh really isn't one of them. The hisa love the sun and the nice humans, want to help, never raise their hands to any humans or each other, and keep unconsciously shaming the humans with their sweet and peaceful approach to problems. By the end of the book I was honestly in favor of putting the lot of them out the airlock just to be done with hearing about how saintly they were and reading their broken-English dialogue. The way that they learned English when the humans can barely speak a word of their language has been done to death as a way of shaming the big bad humans more times than I can count, and it would be more interesting if they had any real vices to play into the moral complexity that all of the humans share. 

The peaceful methods would be smoother if the Downers were contemptuous of the humans, or had some sort of sly passive resistance to Lukas's methods of controlling their work, but they just....obey and like the nice humans. The humans get all starry-eyed about it, with one reflecting "They waited for a dream, all of them; and if men would turn their guns on the gentle dreamers of Downbelow, then there was no more hope at all. So the hisa had disarmed them at the beginning...with empty hands." It's honestly quite nauseating, especially in comparison to other alien perspectives; the cold perfection of gods, or Dr. Manhatten of Watchmen, really shows how a being that's free of normal human vices can still be terrifying and oddly cruel. The Downers are just written like happy children, very similar to how Europeans used to perceive other "primitive" cultures, and every section written from a Downer perspective was just maddeningly saccharine to read; they're what holds this book back from being four stars.

All in all, this book is strongly different from how science fiction and space opera seem to go; the action takes a backseat to the politics, which in turn takes a backseat to how ordinary people cope with being shoved around like pieces on a game board. Odds are I'll come back again to sample this author, particularly other books set in the same universe.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Elizabeth Moon's Trading in Danger works on a smaller scale and doesn't have half the political backdrop, but Kylara Vatta does a brilliant job as a civilian dealing with a military situation that's far beyond anything she expected
~Watch some Babylon 5, taking care to remind yourself that the pilot is by far the rockiest part. It's got more high drama than this book does, but the way it shifts from one perspective to another is quite similar and the first four seasons have magnificently-paced storytelling. 

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