I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. After a 13-month haitus as I prepped for, some how survived, and then recovered from my first year teaching, THP is back in action with a visit to Pell’s World and its accompanying station. Sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice continue!
C. J. Cherryh
published in 1981
Orbiting one of the few habitable worlds discovered by humankind, Pell Station – better known as Downbelow – rests uneasily at the boundary between Earth Company space and Union Alliance space. As war between the two factions heats up, Pell and its in habitants, human and Hisa, find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
The Hugo Project makes its triumphant return!
…okay, maybe triumphant isn’t the best word. Given that it’s been a good year since I read this book, this will necessarily be short. I think I remember the plot? Or something?
Okay. Let’s all agree to proceed with this review, keeping in mind that memory is an incredibly unreliable thing and I’m working with a brain that’s had an entire school year’s worth of teaching and processing crammed into it between when I read the book and when I’m writing the review, so the THP corners of my brain are a little squashed and a lot dusty.
Let’s see. I remember thinking that there was definitely A Lot Going On Here, but that I was having trouble following it. I mean, I know I have issues keeping track of politics and all, but I had a very hard time with the various factions trying to negotiate and what they said their motives were vs. what they thought their boss’s motives were vs what their enemies thought they were vs what they thought their enemy’s were and we weren’t given enough window into anyone’s head. I remember liking Satin and the Hisa. I remember being seriously skeeved by Mallory’s sexual abuse of Talley.
I think what really bothered me about Downbelow is how weirdly banal it was to me. This is the disadvantage of reading a work (especially in SF) more than 30 years after its publication – it might well have been the originator of a trope or style that you have since come to dislike. I don’t know if that’s true of Downbelow; all I know is that it’s the kind of story I’ve encountered before, and one that I am very particular about. Think A Song of Ice and Fire; think Battlestar Galactica 2004; think any of the innumerable examples of stories of large-scale conflict that focus on individual characters forced to make difficult decisions. Hell, think Babylon 5.
This is not a bad narrative structure, provided that it’s done well. And by ‘well,’ I mean, I can connect with the characters enough to give a damn about what happens to them.
That’s where Downbelow falls flat. Aside from my difficulties keeping everybody straight, I also found it incredibly difficult to care about them. I don’t know what it is about Cherryh’s writing style, but I spent most of the book feeling vaguely uncomfortable about everybody. Discomfort has its place in storytelling; these are people in difficult situations making difficult decisions, and it would be absurd to expect none of them to cause distress to the characters or the reader. But I just felt uncomfortable with 90% of the characters before they had to make their difficult decisions. The only way I can describe it is that the whole book was…grimy. Not gritty; grimy. Yech.
Anyway. One last thing before we wrap up – as a Babylon 5 fan, this was of course another instance of JMS, I am so on to you. I suppose it could be a coincidence, of course, but the term downbelow (which I, even now, have trouble not using to refer to the slums/high-poverty areas of space stations in my own work), the colored station sectors (obviously not original to Cherryh, but still), and the whole ‘we’re being knocked out of orbit’ bit, are all hard-wired in the B5 section of my brain.
Race: Most characters assumed to be white. I believe the Mazianni had one black captain and one Asian captain? Neither are major players that I can recall.
Gender/Sexuality: I think I may have blocked a lot of this out. I remember being seriously uncomfortable most times sex/sexual contact came up. There are a number of female characters in the book, but the majority of the cast is male. I really wanted to like Mallory, the female captain, but sexual assault is one of my Unforgivable Sins in a character so there we are.
Other: I really don’t remember…
OVERALL RANKING: 7 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).
Come back in two weeks for whatever I can remember about the four other Company Wars books I read last year!