The first term which springs to mind in considering Cherryh’s Downbelow Station is “military SF”. But, somehow, that doesn’t seem adequate. When I think of military SF visions of Weber’s Honor Harrington or Moon’s Heris Serrano dance before my eyes. And comparing Honor Harrington to Downbelow Station is like comparing a table knife to a machete: It may be technically correct, but it is more than lacking in its descriptive accuracy.
Downbelow Station is a war story. Not a story of the glorified war seen at a Saturday matinee, bur rather the story of a war seen through the eyes of an Anne Frank or a Vietnam vet. It is a war brutal, savage, and viciously capricious. Indeed, Cherryh’s vision of future war is, if anything, more horrific than anything the modern world has seen: It is a thing of vacuum and hapless impotence.
The best comparison I can draw to Downbelow Station would be Haldeman’s Forever War. But Haldeman’s masterpiece pales in comparison to the rich textures of Cherryh’s classic: Where Haldeman’s message is a relatively simple, Vietnam parable, Cherryh weaves an elaborate tapestry of motive, judgment, and consideration. As a result, by the end of the book, I certainly know what my own opinions on the war are – but I rather suspect that others will draw completely dissimilar conclusions. Cherryh conjures a stark, appalling reality: Complex, textured, and detailed. Attempting to grasp what she has created is like trying to come to grips with Beirut or Iraq – it has that kind of startling depth.
The other work which I invariably found myself thinking of while reading Downbelow Station was Cyteen, the only other work by Cherryh which I have read to date. Downbelow Station, being the earlier work, is almost inevitably a little cruder than Cyteen, but many of the same strengths are to be found here: Most notably, Cherryh’s ability to fully realize the characters on all sides of a conflict. Unlike Cyteen, the effect is not quite perfect: Characters like Lukas and Mazian may be given some depth, but they’re still palpably the unmitigated villains of the piece, while, on the other hand, the Konstantins are the sainted heroes. In other places, though, Cherryh’s future gift for characterization shines through – Signy, Elene, Satin, Josh, Kressich – and it is in these places, naturally, that the work finds its greatest resonance and most meaningful facets.
One thing I find particularly interesting is Cherryh’s prose. When I begin a Cherryh novel, I will often find myself noticing its distinctive style. It seems to stand out in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on: Perhaps it is an unusual word choice. Or a way of structuring sentences and paragraphs. It’s difficult to describe. But within a handful of pages, I find that I have adjusted to it completely – at which point it becomes a powerful storytelling tool, wielded by a master of her craft.
In short, I found Downbelow Station to be a powerful and moving experience. Between this and Cyteen, I am now officially a Cherryh fanatic.
Publisher: DAW Books
Cover Price: $7.99