Tag Archives: science fiction literature

Book Review: Downbelow Station (C.J. Cherryh 1981)

Note: I avoid spoilers in this review. Any plot details I mention occur early in the book.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

I’ve had Downbelow Station on my shelf for a while. It’s 526 pages, so a little on the long side. I’d seen the book on a few “best of” lists, but no one I know has ever mentioned it. It was the 1982 Hugo award winner. So finally I bucked up and read it, and it was excellent.

Although I see “Downbelow Station” described as a hard science fiction book, the technological aspects of the book do not occupy the foreground. The interactions and desires of the characters do that; in some ways it’s a  high-class space opera. I found the style of the book most similar to Vernor Vinge in books like “A Fire Upon the Deep” with a little more militarism. I wonder how much the post Vietnam era affected the portrayal of militarism; the warring elements do not come off positively in this book. Cherryh does a good job developing culture; we can see the cultural differences between Union, Company, Pell, and the Downers. If you like sweeping science fiction, this is a highly worthy read.

Most of the action takes place on Pell Station, a space station orbiting a habitable planet with natives called “Downers” in the year 2352. Humans have expanded into space, one station after the next. At some point in history, humans developed faster than light “jump” technology, so they can spread further yet, into the “Beyond”. The humans in the Beyond have become disassociated with Earth; likewise Earth is somewhat detached from the stations. Pell finds itself between the forces of the Beyond and the renegade forces of Earth. The first 20 pages or so lay down this background; it’s a lot of exposition and it’s confusing and not totally engaging. The beginning is the weak point of this book. Once the ground work is laid, the story takes off.

We arrive at Pell when the Company ships of Earth force the station to take on a bunch of refugees from another station which has been destroyed in the conflict between the Company and the Union of the Beyond. These unregistered people are housed in quarantine, or Q, which is lawless and places a great deal of strain on the station’s resources. Over the course of the book, we watch people from Q, from Pell station, from Union, and from the Company as they vie for the strategically valuable Pell. The people of Pell station I found especially interesting, and their interactions with the Downers.

There are several other books in Cherryh’s Union-Company universe that I look forward to reading. Check out my Top 20 science fiction novels for more science fiction recommendation.

The Best of Science Fiction

I began reading science fiction novels almost by accident. One day I saw an Alfred Bester book on the shelf at a book store. Viewers of Babylon 5 (the best TV show ever) will recall a character by this name. I had read many Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 books, and I followed science fiction TV with ardor. So I assumed this book was in the same vein. It was not. The B5 character was named for a writer from the 50s.

Alfred Bester is best known for two novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. They’re both amazing, and I recommend them. “The Demolished Man” works on a simple premise: how would someone go about getting away with murder in a society in which telepaths existed? “The Stars My Destination” (loosely based upon the Count of Monte Cristo) explores what would happen if people could transport themselves at will. How would prisons work? How would you prevent theft? “The Demolished Man” won the first Hugo Award in 1953. “The Stars My Destination” has been credited as perhaps the creator of cyberpunk.

After Bester, I was hungry for more. I scoured the web for lists of the best science fiction novels. Here is one good list of the top novels, though it is somewhat weighted towards older books. I also tried to read the winners and nominees of the Hugo and Nebula awards (you can find a list of wins by author here). Wikipedia lists the Hugo Award wins according to year here. I personally strongly prefer the Hugo Award books to the Nebula Award books, but you may find differently.

So after all that hunting, here are my top 5 science fiction novels:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula LeGuin, 1969)– A human envoy visits an alien world, hoping to convince them to join an alliance. The aliens have no set gender, but phase in and out of male, female, and neuter. The book explores the culture of this planet, both due to the unusual gender of its people, and the extremely cold climate. For whatever reason, men tend to be unimpressed with this book, but women I’ve recommended it to like it. The book explores gender and cultural topics without getting heavy-handed or obvious. The two main characters are amazingly drawn. The book is filled with little amazing legends and folklore from the culture.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, 1960)– A post-apocalyptic story with a very different twist. Broken into three parts at very different times, the first part opens in a Catholic abbey in Nevada several centuries after a devastating nuclear war. The novel has a charming humor and levity despite the settings. It explores religious themes (not very common in scifi).
  • The Forever War (Joe Haldeman 1974)– A story about a man involved in a space war. As the battles are waged, centuries pass, and the man is isolated from his own life by a questionable war. Haldeman was a vietnam vet, and it shows. I have read at least a dozen novels by Haldeman, and I would recommend every single one. He writes science fiction with a focus on heart. “The Forever War” is one of the best science fiction love stories I’ve read.
  • The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester 1956)– discussed above.
  • Camp Concentration (Thomas Disch 1968)– a dark and twisted “Flowers for Algernon”. A conscientious objector is sentenced to prison. He is then subjected to experiments that greatly increase his intellect, along with a number of other prisoners. This book is very literary to the point of sometimes being maddening. I skipped through some of the literary aspects that I didn’t relate to. But the story and the science fiction and the humor are spot on and excellent.

You may notice the heavy slant to the 50s and 60s. This is no accident. These books are old enough to be reprinted and therefore available, but old enough for the reprints to be available used (used books are so wonderfully inexpensive!). Some more modern very awesome scifi books are “Snow Crash“, “Mathematicians in Love“, “A Fire Upon the Deep“, and “The Windup Girl“.

If you are looking for more reading suggestions, check out my top 20 science fiction novels.

I could talk all day about science fiction, so drop a comment!