Downbelow Station by C J Cherryh


This was such a great place to start my Digging for Gold project. What a gem of a book! Downbelow Station definitely goes on the keeper shelf. I loved it. I want to reread it. I want to read more of C J Cherryh’s work because of it.

1982 book cover for Downbelow Station by C J Cherryh

Before this I’d only read two books by Cherryh, when I was a young teen. I don’t remember much about either The Dreamstone nor Rusalka now, and half suspect that I didn’t understand much of what I was reading at the time. I say that because the first thing I found when I started Downbelow Station is that Cherryh’s writing style is … I’m going to say … dense. By which I mean, it’s powerful, but you have to concentrate. You can’t go merrily tripping over her sentences, as she lays out her world before you. There’s legwork. Description is minimal, a lot of things are suggested but never made plain, even the way in which she strings a sentence together is, not unusual exactly, but you need to pay attention. And I frigging love it.

Chapter One is an infodump that presents How the Universe Got into its Current State. I like this kind of overview, because I sometimes find it difficult to pick up the bigger picture when I’m reading, but I can see that the Internet is not in agreement. Whatever. If you don’t like an infodump intro, start at Chapter Two.

The story begins with a military ship, the Norway, escorting freighter-loads of refugees into Pell Station. They are the casualties of a war between the Company (representing Earth’s interests) and the Union (representing colonists based out of the habitable world of Cyteen), and their presence on the station kicks off a number of the main threads of the novel. Resources immediately become an issue, many of Pell Station’s inhabitants are displaced to make room for the influx of bodies, there is no way of filtering Union spies and/or saboteurs out of the group so all refugees are placed in quarantine, and the station’s neutral status is threatened. Tensions rise.

Everything is exacerbated by palpable claustrophobia and paranoia. There is no outside in space. Or rather, there is, but you absolutely don’t want to be there. With the refugees packed in, most long-term inhabitants of the station have had their own living spaces severely curtailed. Down on the planet of Pell, the air is too thin for humanity to breath unassisted by apparatus, so that nearest inhabitable planet doesn’t offer the comfort it might if it were a second Earth. It is also perpetually raining and flooding, making construction work difficult, so the living space down below is as restricted as it is above.

The book follows a gaggle of characters, on the station, on Pell, on the Norway, and in Union space, dealing with both the larger and smaller concerns of the end days of the Company-Union war. It’s a complex plot, and not one I could do justice to, even with twice the space, but favourite characters include: Damon Konstatin and Elene Quen working to keep refugees, stationers and merchanters happy on Pell Station; Damon’s brother Emilio and his wife Miliko, working with the native hisa and with refugee workers down on Pell itself; and the hisa Satin and Bluetooth, who travel up to the station hoping to see the Sun that they revere. Other characters, favourites too, but far more ambiguous, include Union prisoner of war, Josh Talley (whose storyline is utterly, utterly fascinating); the Norway’s Captain, Signy Mallory; the bitter and detestable Jon Lukas; the councillor, turned refugee, turned gang-puppet, Vasilly Kressich; and Company man, Segust Ayres, easy to hate at first, but later … not so much.

These characters, among so many others, bring this Company-Union space alive. Circumstances are everything, and some, who appear at first to be good people you can root for, prove over time to be disappointing; others, like Ayres, accrue something like sympathy (his time as a guest of the Union is incredibly uncomfortable). Mallory is a masterpiece of ambiguity, admirable and despicable by turns. Angelo Konstatin, stationmaster of Pell, is a good person, doing a difficult job, which others think they can do better. All of their actions, good and bad, feed into the eventual resolution and feel organic, understandable and multifaceted.

This complexity throws the hisa into stark relief. They have no ulterior motive to their open, gentle welcome of humanity. They are, at their very core, peaceful, fun-loving and criminally cute. I’d heard a lot of good things about Cherryh’s aliens before reading Downbelow Station and I was anticipating something more than what I got with the hisa. There is something discomforting about such an obvious Noble Savage, uncorrupted by civilisation’s excesses. But Cherryh was deeply into history, and the way the hisa are treated in the book informed by that, I think. They have no natural predators, for example, nor do they appear to compete to mate, so what good would an understanding of violence do them? And why would they need to grow larger and more threatening in appearance? However fluffy and fun-loving they may be, Cherryh’s not going against her own internal logic to make them so.

And for the record, I still liked the hisa. Yes, they weren’t what I was expecting or hoping for, but I don’t feel like they’re a weak element either. Their use of human language reveals their thinking to be perfectly alien and throughout I felt as though it was never adequately expressing their own point of view. I was also fascinated by their reverence for Angelo’s paralysed wife Alicia, their ‘Dreamer’, and that final scene in which Satin, now the ‘Storyteller’ expresses the possibility that the hisa will become spacefaring. They’ve dreamed one of humanity’s dreams in wanting to go outwards; maybe humanity can dream one of the hisa’s dreams and live more co-operatively. I feel like this Company-Union universe will need that.

Then again, I think the Ewoks are the best thing about Star Wars, so what do I know?




  1. I’ve read one or two Cherryh so I know she’s not for me. But I was reading your review, glad that she was working out so well for you.

    Then you had to go and ruin everything by that last sentence….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t like Ewoks – but I remember reading Downbelow Station in my student days (a LONG time ago) and liking it. Your summary brought it right back though I remember nothing of the complex plot.

    One of these days I will have to read ALL of Cherryh.

    She is still with us. You should send her a fan letter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds pretty awesome! I like that it requires more attention to fully indulge its subtle qualities and details. I’ll definitely keep this on my radar now. Thanks for this fantastic review! 😀

    P.S. I also wanted to make a quick mention that I will be moving on to my own blog going forward (temporarily cross-posting content to warn readers on Bookidote) and that I’d love for us to remain connected over on my new blog ( Don’t feel obligated to do so though! Stay safe!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lashaan – thank you for letting me know that you’re moving over – of course I’ll be following you!
      And thank you for your kind comments about my post. Cherryh has been my first happy ‘vintage’ discovery this year – I’m really looking forward to reading more by her. 😀


  4. Ah… I’m so glad you enjoy her writing so much! I was a huge fan back in the day – and now I’m rediscovering her allll over again through audiobooks, as her writing translates beautifully into hearing it. For anyone interested in finding more accessible reads whereby they can enjoy Cherryh at her very best – Rider at the Gate and Cloud’s Rider, which is the Fininsterre duology. They are not available as an ebook, but your library might have a copy. Lovely review – it’s always a pleasure to hear someone else appreciate her mighty talent and nuanced writing.

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  5. I find a whole bunch of C.J. Cherryh at a used books sale. I settle on only getting one of the books and that was Downbelow Station..

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