Friday, 28 November 2014

Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh

This is the second C.J. Cherryh I've read in the past couple of months. I haven't tried her books since I was a teenager, when I stubbed my toe on one of her other books, found it opaque, and didn't try again. I'm glad I have given her another chance now, but I still find her books a bit, well, not opaque anymore, but a bit distant. Her characters seem kept at a distance from the reader, and that's a bit peculiar. However, under all that, they're really strong science fiction books, and if you can keep plugging until you make that connection, they're rewarding.

It took me over half the book to really get into this one. I think I knew what was going on, but it didn't have that drive of story to keep me eager to read more, and the characters remained reserved, so I wasn't reading to find out what happened to them, either. This gradually changed as the book went on, and the last two hundred pages flew by, where the first two hundred had plodded.

So keep that in mind if you're thinking about that one. If you like science fiction that focuses heavily on the procedural, before the plot or the characters kick into high gear, you'll like this fine. If you don't, well, I promise it picks up eventually, but I don't know what your personal tolerance level is.

The major issue with this book is that it does a number of things fairly well, but no one thing really excellently. In fact, most of the time, my reaction tends to be "that's neat - now, could you do something more with it?" There's a lot of surface consideration of interesting things, which are then discarded to bomp along to the next thing that is skimmed over.

Which is weird, given that this is a small story in a large canvas. Or rather, it would benefit from being smaller in scope. There is too much here, and it means many things are given short shrift that have fascinating seeds within them. Picking a few of these things and exploring them would have given a more satisfying experience than throwing the reader in at the deep end of complex politics and not giving a primer at all.

Maybe I'm starting in the middle again. I've read one other book in this universe, from much later, but I still had very little footing. But maybe examples will help. Here are a few things that I wish had been explored in more depth:

Oh, I guess that a brief synopsis might help.

We are in a galaxy where most of humanity that has left Earth lives on space stations, only two planets that can support human life having been found. The economy that has been developed is mercantilist in nature, and the Company back on Earth has little inclination to explore further, or to incorporate their farflung colonies into the profits.

So they rebel, and face off against the remaining Earth fleet of starships, led by a renegade. (I don't know how he became renegade. If the story is told, it's not in this book.) It all comes down to one of the two stations that orbit a habitable planet, Pell Station and Pell. Pell has a race of intelligence life, the hisa. The hisa seem to be vaguely humanoid, gentle, pastoral creatures. More about that in a minute.

There are a few characters whose arcs I wish had more development. The thought processes, the events, many of them seem to happen offstage, and we only occasionally peek in on them. But those seem like the interesting bits! Jon Lukas, for instance, who yearns to wrest control of Pell Station and Pell from the benevolent Konstantins, whom he seems convinced are as mercenary as he himself. How did he get this way? What is his life like? What else has he done in the past? What does he hope for the future? Other than seizing Pell, that is. We see him try to be Machiavelli with limited success, and it's interesting, but it could have been more.

Similarly, the dissatisfaction of Signy, Captain of the Norway, with the fleet, is interesting, but so backgrounded. I could have read a book just about her journey and gobbled it up. How did she get to be the lone captain with integrity in the fleet? Did the rest lost it, or never have it? How did she get the loyalty she has from her crew? Why is she so dedicated to discipline when the rest of the captains are blase about it?

These are the problems - there are fascinating stories here, but as readers, we're not allowed to get close enough to them. We're behind the velvet ropes, and this curator is having none of our shenanigans. It's frustrating, because there is so much here that's good - it's just not concentrated in any one area.

But there is such good stuff here. It's just that it's strung apart, at a deliberate distance from the readers, and I find that frustrating. Not enough to give up on Cherryh. But enough to register my slight annoyance that something that is good isn't better.

Oh wait, I said I'd talk about the hisa, didn't I? There's something brewing in my head that's not quite ready to come out yet, about contact stories with aliens being, in many cases, metaphors for contact with Natives. It's not a new thought, but reading The Inconvenient Indian recently has brought it to the front of my mind. The hisa in this case are gentle, non-violent, storytellers. I don't know what to make with this yet, and at any rate, whatever ideas are bubbling won't be about just one book, anyway. So let's just say that maybe there's a bigger post about colonialism and contact in science fiction composting in my brain, and maybe it'll come out eventually. It's not ready to just yet.

I'd also have to go back and see if all the characters are coded as white. It feels like they are, but I sometimes skim descriptive passages, a fact I admit with some chagrin. 

But as a little note to myself: remember that when you just read Hyperion for the second time, the nastiest colonial impulses of humans are acknowledged, as one character relates the systematic destruction of any intelligent race the humans have come across. Stay tuned.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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