Roxane's Reviews > Downbelow Station

Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh
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's review
May 19, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: theme-park-book-club, science-fiction, space-opera, hugo-award-winner
Read from May 19 to June 03, 2012

This read was for the 2012 Theme Park book club, May theme: The Final Frontier

While C.J. Cherryh needs no introduction to genre readers, I must admit that this great lady is one of those classic scifi authors I had yet to actually read (there are quite a few others which I shall not name just yet...). So when this Hugo winning novel turned out to be the result of May's poll, I was delighted!

I dived into Downbelow Station and was really amazed by the scope of the prologue which provides readers with all the background information they need regarding the Company, its fleet, the different stations and the Union. Prologues, especially when they serve as info dumps (which is the case here) generally put me off. However, Downbelow Station is such a dense book that I am not sure there was any way around it.

Despite quite a few typos, problems with grammar and syntax (but perhaps my edition was a bit dated), I was really gripped for the first 200 pages and not terribly bothered by the elliptical and unsmooth writing style. There was so much going on, so many characters and points of view, a lot of material to digest... possibly too much. And then, despite the fact that I really wanted to know how the events turned out, I found myself reading comics.

Let me explain, I generally turn to comics when I need a break: sometimes it's when I have enjoyed a book so much that I don't feel ready to dive straight into something else just yet and am in need of something short and sweet to catch my breath; at other times, it's when I can't get into a book and this generally happens at the beginning of a book rather than at the end. Neither was really the case here but I got tired of reading the novel and finishing it came as a strange relief.

Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy this book on some levels and I would recommend it to scifi fans but definitely not to anyone outside the genre. If you have never read a space opera before and are not familiar with the terms specifically related to the genre, Cherryh is not going to make it easy for you. She's not the type of writer who's going to take you by the hand and explain faster than light travels and the way a space station operates. You either already know it from previous reads or figure it out quickly enough so as not to lose interest in what's going on. This debatable approach has probably put off more than one reader and I think that was the case for a quite a few participants in the book club. I am generally quite self-disciplined (apart from the comics breaks) and not the type of reader who gets frustrated if I don't understand every single detail, but my boyfriend is and that's probably the reason why he and I don't enjoy the same scifi books.

Another thing that frustrated me throughout my reading of the novel and which I think is really the main cause of my eventual exasperation was the constant change in view points. There are A LOT of characters in this novel, most of which I found very interesting and while I didn't like all of them (and I don't think you're meant to), I felt that they were never taken to their full potential. That's part of the reason why I felt so engaged for the first 200 pages. I felt like the story and its character were going to bloom into something spectacular but they never actually did. Instead, I got tired of the constant change of view points. This is definitely one of the hardest things to pull off and part of me wonders if Downbelow Station had been written now, what type of editorial changes would have been made to Cherryh's initial manuscript compared to the ones that were made in the 80s. I do think that books are a lot more character driven now than they used to and I do try to bare that in mind when reading a classic scifi novel. It's interesting to think that perhaps, my difficulties with this novel stem from a new fashion trend in genre literature and that had I read it when it came out (well had I been born and old enough to), I wouldn't have encountered the same frustrations.

And yet, while I was initially puzzled (by the typos, grammar and syntax), a part of me does see why it won the Hugo prize (although I really don't know how it compares to the other novels nominated). The scope of the novel made me want to read the rest of series and I feel like it's not so much the novel itself that deserves the prize as the author's world building and perhaps the rest of the series. It's so vast and so brilliantly conceived that I think it's difficult not to want to know more if you've managed to finish the novel. The problem for me was really the characters and how the author's characterizations skills felt diluted among all of them so that not one really stood out and felt fully fleshed out.

Perhaps, it's the nature of the endeavor itself that makes it impossible to go from large and vast to small and detailed. And yet, I felt like a few changes could have achieved this. It would be interesting to know if other scifi series with a similar ambitions suffer from similar flaws. I am not well-read enough in the space opera genre to be the judge of this.

What I can say is that I feel like reading Cherryh's other titles in her Company Wars series and more broadly in her Alliance-Union universe as a history books or as non fiction rather than fiction. I want to know what happens to Pell, the Fleet, the Union, how they evolve and change over the centuries but I'm not sure I can bare another narration constantly alternating view points with characters I don't really get a chance to know in-depth. I do intend to try though so welcome any recommendations.

Cherryh's talent at world building is unquestionable and perhaps that's the reason why readers feel like they could expect more from her characterization. I do think a good proofreader was also required but then as I mentioned my edition was probably a bit dated so perhaps more recent edition do not suffer from this. At any rate, this was challenging read on more than one level and although the novel is not without its flaws, I thought it made for a nice introduction to Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe and do plan on reading more works by this author.

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