Thursday, July 2, 2015

1982: Downbelow Station

                Wow. After 5 years and nearly 30 books, I have finally reached the Hugo for my birth year. It has been a great ride and I am happy to report that a great book won in 1982: C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station. Cherryh weaves a complex tale of war and those caught into the middle of it centered on one planet, Pell’s World, and the station the orbits above it.
                Downbelow Station begins with a rather lengthy future history about mankind’s space exploration and the events that brought about the “Company War.” In many books, such an opening would be a dry read and a lazy move by the author. Not so here. I found Cherryh’s future history fascinating and it helped me understand the novel and the characters’ motivations better than if she had weaved into the story or, worse, gave massive exposition dumps as part of the narrative (some other books, which I will talk about in the next few reviews, are very guilty of this). Knowing the history makes the book easier and more enjoyable to read. A novel about World War II would not be as interesting if I did not know anything about what caused the conflict in the first place. The novel takes place in 2352 and for the last three hundred years mankind has spread slowly to new solar systems. At first the Earth Company (space exploration is a private, rather than public enterprise) expands with mining stations around uninhabitable planets. Expansion is slow since it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light when exploration begins. The Spacers who live on merchant ships are away for so long that they develop their own unique and separate culture from Earth. The same goes for people that live on space stations. Humans find the 10th system they travel to has life and is named Pell’s World after the captain that found it. The planet is populated by the Hisa, primitive sentient ape-like creatures. Soon afterwards other suitable planets are found. One of these planets, Cyteen, becomes powerful and eventually leads a Union of other planets against the remote Earth Company. Earth builds 50 battleships to control the outer worlds. As the novel begins, attrition has worn the Earth Fleet down to only a dozen ships. The stations and merchants are caught in the middle of this war.
                Downbelow Station is a story about survival. The merchants and the stationers are trying to survive the conflict between the Union and the Company, the Company Fleet is trying to survive without resupply (Earth has lost interest in the conflict), and Cyteen and the Union are trying to create an independent society. Cherryh jumps around between numerous characters to emphasis the struggles each character is going through. The mess of conflicting interests makes it easy to sympathize with even some of the worst characters though the author is clearly most sympathetic to the suffering of the inhabitants of Pell Station and the refugees that fled there from other stations. The author captures the messiness of space travel that most other science fiction writers tend to ignore. The book spends a good deal of time on the logistical difficulties created by the influx of refugees from other stations. Most other science fiction writers make space travel seem generally comfortable and sterile. It was a nice change of pace.
                Probably the aspect I liked best in the novel was Cherryh’s focus on the cultural differences that rose between the different human societies. The Earth Fleet, Merchants, Cyteen, and Pell Station all have different cultures based on their environment. Pell Stations integration with the Hisa is the most developed culture in the book. The Hisa will work for the humans and even speak a Pigeon English but they are unable to understand human work ethics, time, and culture. Sometimes they will work but sometimes they just goof off and will not come back besides threats of violence or material enticements. The Hisa worship the Sun (which is blocked by clouds a majority of time on their world) and work on the station itself for a chance to be closer to it. Of all the societies in Downbelow Station, Cyteen seems the most alien. It is a new world and the inhabitants have created azi, genetically created clones to fulfill many of the worker and soldier roles since it would not be possible to find as much labor as needed without them. There is not a great deal of information about them in Downbelow Station but Cyteen won the Hugo in 1989 so I am certain I will learn more about Cyteen society in the future.
                Downbelow Station was a great novel and worth addition to the Hugos. That said, I do not believe it should have won in 1982 because one of the nominees is a fantastic novel. The book is The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe. The novel is the second in Wolfe’s Book of the New Urth tetralogy. In my opinion, the whole tetralogy is one of greatest works of science fiction ever written. I am not alone in this opinion. Neil Gaiman stated that it was the greatest work of science fiction of the 20th century. The book is translation of the Autarch Severian the Lame’s journal. Severian was raised by the Tortures Guild millions of years in the future so far, in fact, that the sun is cooling. It is a dense complex work of fiction that I plan to reread soon. Severian is writes the account of his travels after he has become Autarch (essentially Emperor) and is not a reliable narrator. The reader gets the impression that Severian is not always telling you everything you need to know and occasionally lies. Additionally, he does not explain much about how his world works since many parts are second nature to him but unknown to us. The tetralogy is like the Lord of the Rings in that it should be viewed as one whole work rather than separate pieces. Parts of the series were nominated other years as well so this will not be the last time I will write about Gene Wolfe.

                I am glad I read Downbelow Station and I am excited to read Cyteen in the future. For my next review I am going to do something a little different (again). The 1983 winner is Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov, which is the fourth book in his Foundation series. The original Foundation trilogy won the Hugo for Best Overall Series so I felt I had to read it first. Tune in next time where we see what all the fuss is about. 

Gene Wolfe Claw first edition.jpg