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Downbelow Station by CJ Cherryh

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When CJ Cherryh published Downbelow Station, she had already developed a well-earned reputation as a writer on the basis of books such as the Faded Sun trilogy and the original Morgaine trilogy. In a number of her science fiction novels we got glimpses of the history of Alliance and Union, the primary polities of her future history, and their birth in struggle with the Earth Company and Earth's vain attempt to maintain control of her distant colonies. As a result, long-time readers would probably come to the novel with at least some notion of the situation.

On the other hand, newcomers to her fictional universe would have little or no understanding of the various forces contending for dominance or why things should be in contention. As a result, the first chapter of the novel is a history lesson tracing the development of space travel from the establishment of Sol Station (given as 2005, a date that may well have looked plausible in 1981 when the novel was first published, but which has proved sadly overoptimistic as short-sighted bureaucrats have persistently chosen to fund pork-barrel projects at the expense of space exploration and the development of a permanent human presence in space) through the early interstellar slowships and the stations they established along a string of planetless stars to the discovery of Pell's World and Cyteen, both planets upon which humans could live, if only with the aid of technology to protect them from an environment not quite completely compatible with their biochemistry.

The novel begins as the growing social and economic distance between Earth and her colonies becomes a violent rupture, resulting in attacks by Earth Company ships upon various stations regarded in rebellion. However, the entire novel's action takes place solely upon the station orbiting Pell's World and the planet itself, called Downbelow by many locals in acknowledgment of the worldview of the Hisa or Downers, the native sophants of this world (who call the station Upabove). As a result of this very tight focus upon one place, we get a very visceral and specific experience of the horrors of war. We hear about actions at various stations and between ships in deep space only through the viewpoints of various characters, most of them fleeing as helpless refugees, desperate to find some crumb of safety somewhere.

And it is that refugee situation, rather than any number of direct assaults or the reports of people being vented into space on other stations or on ships about to be boarded, that is the most gut-wrenchingly horrific. We really feel the sense of desperation of these people arriving in vast numbers, grasping at the faint hope that maybe, just maybe, space will be found for them upon the station.

Therein lies the crux of the story. A space station is a small, closed environment with finite resources. Each person aboard it must be provided for by prior planning, and a sudden influx of refugees places a terrible strain on the life support systems of Pell Station. It's a survivable situation only because pre-war Pell Station had become sufficiently wealthy that there was a surplus capacity beyond bare survival levels, a surplus that its residents had previously used to make life a little more comfortable for themselves.

In order to make room for the refugees, even in a separate Quarantine area, the residents have to be disaccomadated to a greater or lesser degree, resulting in a network of festering resentments, to the point that more than a few people who in the abstract would condemn as murder a mass venting of human beings solely because they're inconvenient become ready and even eager to vent the lot of the refugees into space and be done with them. If pressed, they'd probably rationalize it under the rubric of defense against invaders, never mind that the refugees are for the most part unarmed and defenseless.

But not everybody in Quarrantine. Even in the most desperate situations there are always those wolves among men who manage to come out on top, who find ways to arm themselves and to organize other toughs around themselves in order to exert force on their fellow human beings to their own advantage and their victims' despite. Soon the Quarantine sectors are a informal dictatorship made all the more brutal because it has no formal social legitimacy, only brute force by which its members keep themselves on the top of the heap. But it is they who dole out the scant resources, who for a price can gain a person almost anything, even passage out of Quarantine into the station proper, into citizenship and real hope for a future rather than just an endless animal existence of eking out one breath after another.

Even those who do manage to escape the horrors of Quarantine don't have things much easier. Take for instance Joshua Talley, the prisoner of war who was rescued from harsh interrogation on Roberts Station by Signy Mallory, only to fall victim to her own predatory behavior aboard her ship, the Norway. By the time he arrives at Pell Station he is so badly torn up mentally and emotionally that he requests Adjustment, a psychological procedure that involves the use of psychotropic chemicals to erase sections of a person's memory that are causing them mental distress. In the process, he will recall substantial sections of his memory aloud for those doing the process, including surprising revelations that will have important effects upon the course of the war.

Cyteen-based Union has far more advanced psychological techniques than Alliance, which for the most part uses them for criminal justice, with the occasional person whose traumas are so extensive that he or she voluntarily requests Adjustment in search of mental peace and restored functionality. Although Union does make use of Adjustment in those cases, they also use similar drugs with their deepteach tapes in order to construct a mind from the ground up, particularly in the people born from artificial uterine environments in vast numbers to fill out the populations of their planets rapidly. These azi have their entire personalities constructed by design, and if Union decides that one of them can better serve in a different capacity, they are mindwiped and a new personality is installed. Needless to say, this whole system is regarded with horror and disgust by most people in Alliance, and a certain amount of that disgust consequently laps over onto the people who have been its subjects.

Talley insists that he is a born-man, that he has memories of his family and his childhood. But there is evidence that all of those memories are constructs, nothing more than the imagination of whoever put together his new mind and made him an agent for unknown purposes of Union's military. Or is that another level of false leads?

If the horrors aboard the station aren't enough, then there's the desperate flight of a group of stationers Down to the planet's surface. Although Pell's World has a complex ecology, it isn't quite completely compatible with human biology. The air pressure is too low, and there are chemicals in the air that are dangerous. In order to live safely on the surface, a human being must constantly wear a breather to maintain adequate pressure and filter the harmful chemicals, or stay within a pressurized dome. To be robbed of one's breather or have its filters fail is to be sentenced to an agonizing death unless rescued by someone with a spare breather. Although the gentle Hisa try to help, they are a primitive species and there is evidence that their capacity to learn abstract thought or comprehension of technology is severely limited (think something along the lines of Homo erectus rather than a Cro-Magnon).

All of these various social pressures lead to a significant shift in the administrative structures of the station, not to mention major changes in the nature of Alliance and its military.

Review posted August 29, 2010.

Buy Downbelow Station: The Company Wars (Daw Books Collectors) from