Downbelow Station (Company Wars, #1) - C.J. Cherryh PROLOGUE: Of late, I’ve been in a reading slump. Nothing on the to-read shelf calls to me, and I’m still trying to motivate myself to finish off several-too-many reviews that have been sitting on my desk. Though I’ll eventually return to newer prose, I’ve gone back to some old favorites, including the one currently under review. During my tenure at GoodReads, I’ve never passed up the opportunity to recommend this title to anyone willing to listen. I became a fan of C.J. Cherryh early in my life and, despite some stumbles in her latest stuff, remain so. As I’m reading Downbelow Station for the umpteenth time, I wanted to take this opportunity to gush at length about a book that remains one of my favorites, including one of my favorite characters – Signy Mallory (but more about her below).

For me, Downbelow Station is a nearly flawless novel. The book contains all of Cherryh’s strengths: the story is gripping, the pacing is excellent and the characters are interesting. I’ve read most – if not all – of her subsequent Union/Alliance novels and none quite reach the level of awesomeness that is Downbelow (though many are fine novels in their own right); and in her other work only the Morgaine and Chanur series are equally awesome (IMO, of course). (Sidebar: If I were to list my top 10 SF characters, three would come from Cherryh – Signy Mallory; Morgaine (and Vanye) from [b:Gate of Ivrel|57084|Gate of Ivrel (Morgaine Saga, #1)|C.J. Cherryh||55705], et al.; and Pyanfar Chanur from [b:The Pride of Chanur|1197129|The Pride of Chanur (Compact Space, #1)|C.J. Cherryh||983695], et al.)

INFRASTRUCTURE: One of the better qualities of Downbelow Station is that Cherryh avoids infodumping except for a prologue – chapter one – that recounts the history of space exploration to 2352, when chapter two opens, and sets the stage for the ensuing play. If so inclined, the reader can skip it. I wouldn’t recommend that because you’ll be easily lost once the story begins and you’ll lose the context that explains the conflict between Earth and her colonies. You’ll also have trouble understanding the differences between merchanter, stationer, Company soldier and Unionist, which is all important for how the characters act.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE: The following are the chief characters in the novel; the ones from who’s points of view the story is told.

Damon Konstantin: The Konstantin’s are the preeminent family on Pell, part of the original colony. Damon is the younger son of the dynasty and head of the station’s Legal Affairs department. He winds up entangled in the life of Josh Talley (below), the Union captive Mallory brings in from Russell’s.

Elene Quen: Merchanter families are close-knit clans. Their children don’t fall in love with stationers, and they don’t settle on stations. But Elene and Damon are experimenting. When Mariner falls and Elene’s family is murdered, she’s on-station with Damon. In the riots that erupt when the Company moves in on the station, she winds up fleeing with the merchanters and becomes instrumental in changing the balance of power between Union, Pell and Earth.

Emilio Konstantin: Emilio is the oldest son of the family, and in charge of Downbelow when the station falls – first to an internal coup and then to the Mazianni.

Jon Lukas: If there’s a consistent villain in Downbelow, it’s Jon Lukas, the head of a rival station clan. He sees an opportunity to overturn the Konstantin’s hegemony in Union’s advance.

Josh Talley: Josh is an armscomper captured by Mallory. He’s mentally tortured on Russell’s and voluntarily opts for Adjustment when he reaches Pell in the hopes of banishing the demons that haunt his memories. Actually, he was a special operative, one of the lab-born azi that Union breeds, with no past of his own. The artificial past of his armscomper role becomes the “real” for him; and in that context, he becomes friends with Damon and his loyalties to Union become shaky.

Vassily Kressich: Kressich is the figurehead the gangs in Q, the quarantined section for the refugees, select to present a legitimate front.

Segust Ayres: Ayres is the Earth Company representative who has come out to negotiate a peace with Union whether Mazian wants one or not.

Satin: Satin is one of the hisa, the native species of Pell’s World. Admittedly, Cherryh gets better at creating truly alien species (cf., the kif, hani, iduve, atevi, etc.) but as a first effort, the hisa are different enough to be more than hairy human children.

Signy Mallory:


I read Downbelow soon after its first publication – 1981 – and the image I immediately formed of Captain Signy Mallory of the Earth Company Ship Norway was Sigourney Weaver from Alien. Both characters – Mallory and Ellen Ripley – are remarkably similar. Both are capable of extraordinary things, both are committed to their crews and the people important in their lives, and both will do the right (or “righter”) thing regardless of cost. For example, there’s a scene toward the end of the novel, when Mallory is faced with joining Mazian’s mad dash to Sol and becoming a pirate for real or throwing her lot in with the Alliance and preserving the meaning to the life she’s led:

“Let me talk to Mazian.”

“Hardly practical. And he won’t agree to hear you. Don’t you know, Damon Konstantin, he’s the source of your troubles? My orders come from him.”

“The Fleet belonged to the Company once. It was ours. We believed in you. The stations – all of us – believed in you, if not in the Company. What happened?”

She glanced down without intending to, found it difficult to look up again and meet his ignorant eyes.

“Someone’s insane,” Konstantin said.

Quite possibly, she thought. She leaned back in the chair and found nothing to say. (pp. 402-3)

Kirk and Picard? Wimps.

EXCERPTS: The following are excerpts that particularly struck me during this read and which are indicative of Cherryh’s writing style.

The first are the opening sentences of chapter two – the real beginning of the novel – and thrust us immediately into the thick of things as the Earth Company ship Norway escorts refugees from the fallen stations of Russell’s, Viking and Mariner into Pell’s system and begins the chain of events that result in the Alliance and other things that would be spoilers:

The convoy winked in, the carrier Norway, and then the ten freighters – more, as Norway loosed her four riders and the protective formation spread itself wide in its approach to Pell’s Star.

Here was the refuge, one secure place the war had never yet reached, but it was the lapping of the tide. The worlds of the far Beyond were winning, and certainties were changing, on both sides of the line. (p. 10)

This next excerpt is a description of Mallory:

He had watched her for some hours, a foreboding presence in the center. She had a way of moving that made no noise, no swagger, no, but it was, perhaps, the unconscious assumption that anyone in her way would move. They did. Any tech who had to get up did so only when Mallory was patrolling some other aisle. She had never made a threat – spoke seldom, mostly to the troopers, about what, only she and they knew. She was even, occasionally and before the hours wore on, pleasant. But there was no question the threat was there. Most residents on-station had never seen close up the kind of gear that surrounded Mallory and her troops; had never touched a gun with their own hands, would be hard put to describe what they saw. He noted three different models in this small selection alone, light pistol; long-barreled ones; heavy rifles, all black plastics and ominous symmetries; armor, to diffuse the burn of such weapons … that gave the troopers the same deadly machined look as the rest of the gear, no longer human. It was impossible to relax with such among them. (p. 224)

This next block illustrates Mallory’s relationship with her fellow Company captains and her don’t-mess-with-me-and-my-ship attitude:

“There were no Norway personnel involved.”

“You were operating outside the province of your own administration. Internal security is Captain Keu’s operation. Why was he not advised before this raid?”

“Because India troops were involved.” She looked directly at Keu’s frowning face, and at the others, and back at Mazian. “It did not look to be a major operation.”

“Yet your own troops escaped the net.”

“Were not involved, sir.”

There was stark silence for a moment. “You’re rather righteous, aren’t you?”

She leaned forward, arms on the table, and gave Mazian stare for stare. “I don’t permit my troops to sleepover on-station, and I keep strict account of their whereabouts. I knew where they were. And there are no Norway personnel involved in the market. While I’m being called to account, I’d also like to make a point: I disapproved of the general liberties when they were first proposed and I’d like to see the policy reviewed. Disciplined troops are overworked on the one hand and overlibertied on the other – stand them till they’re falling down tired and liberty them till they’re falling down drunk, that’s the present policy, which I have not permitted among my own personnel. Watches are relieved at reasonable hours and liberties are confined to that narrow stretch of dock under direct observation of my own officers for the very brief time they’re allowed at all. And Norway personnel were not involved in this situation.”

Mazian glared. She watched the steady flare of his nostrils. “We go back a long way, Mallory. You’ve always been a bloody-handed tyrant. That’s the name you’ve gotten. You know that.”

“That’s quite possible.”

“Shot some of your own troops at Eridu. Ordered one unit to open fire on another.”

Norway has its standards.” (pp. 345-6)

I could find more passages. Though long association with Downbelow has revealed some of its wrinkles, I would still enthusiastically recommend this to anyone.