What’s the difference between the Stars War and Trek? Is it the in-the-moment excitement of ‘war’ vs. the long-term implications of ‘trek’? Or is it something as simple as lightsabers vs phasers? Hyperdrive vs. warp speed? Giant asteroid slugs vs. ultra-anthropomorphized aliens? No, it would seem to be something more. Star Wars the poster example of eye-candy space opera, Star Trek attempts to dig deeper into the implications of alien contact, inter-species relations, and the responsibilities of humanity in space—soft science fiction as it were (with the requisite flash of action at the end of the episode). C.J. Cherryh’s 1981 Downbelow Station, a dense read dependent on character and political interrelationships, is a novel precisely in the Star Trek mold.
Three hundred years in the future, mankind has made its way beyond our solar system and into neighboring galaxies. Finding some planets barren and others inhabitable or otherwise profitable, a string of orbiting stations and habitations are built steadily outward from Earth, all business and government overseen by the ubiquitous Company. Eventually extending too far, a revolution breaks out at the trailing end. Starting on the station Cyteen, a well-organized and funded group calling themselves Union slowly start taking control of the chain of stations, working their way in reverse toward Earth. The Company scrambling for defense, they enlist every vessel they can, including freighters and passenger vehicles, in the ensuing war. A battle devastating one of the Company’s main stations, its freighters head to the next closest station above the planet Pell (aka Downbelow Station) in the hopes of getting much needed food and medical help. Pell officially neutral, they are reluctant to allow the first freighter, called the Norway and captained by Signy Mallory, to dock, knowing the wave that will follow, and inevitably war with the Union. Mallory forcing her way in, the story that unfolds is one of subterfuge, intergalactic battle, diplomatic, and humane proportions. Pell’s fate? The reader will have to find out themselves.
Omnipresent, the narrative of Downbelow Station does not create plot from the point of view of one or two or even three characters. A dearth of people given page time, the unraveling of Pell’s fate is seen through multiple, multiple viewpoints. From Captain Mallory to Pell’s senior dignitary, refugees to workers on Pell planet-side, Union officials to wives, at times it seems everybody is given a window of story. The result of this umrage of character is that the reader gets a full overview of the proceedings; Union, Company, Pell inhabitants, and those between have their place and create a full mosaic of perspective. Humanized given that Cherryh emphasizes diplomacy over fighting (Trek not War, remember), the simplistic interpretation of ‘war is bad’ is subsumed into the personalized future histories of those involved, and results in a storyline that is extremely simple on the outside, but given the perspectives Cherryh highlights becomes a complex plot featuring a wealth of perspectives into conflict—from the extreme ends of aggression and passivity, to the middle ground of defense and culture. So while the successful juggling of plot lines is the novel’s strongest technical point, the presentation of humanity is its most affective.
Where problems arise is in the individuality of these characters. In all cases Cherryh presents them in more human terms than the average space opera. Within this matrix some are fleshed out more than others, but as a whole there is not as much detail as one would like to distinguish between them. Each chapter title is a location, and generally within the first paragraph Cherryh identifies the character the camera is following, but for about half of the viewpoints little else beyond these surface indicators differentiates the thoughts and actions of the individual personalities. They behave fully human and possess emotions like any breathing person, but what sets Konstantin apart from Lukas, for example, is signified predominantly by name and situation only.
While technically space opera, Downbelow Station is a novel that places international relations, foreign diplomacy, the importance of trade and commerce to government, and the human effect of conflict above action, battle scenes, and violence. This is not to say the story does not feature exciting bits, only that they are more spaced out, the details of interstellar politics and trade taking the foreground. There are spies, for example, but these are not of the James Bond mold—killing at will, sleeping with the ladies, and able to sneak past every guard. Cherryh’s version more realistic (yet not wholly), they instead attempt to grease the wheels of the system, apply pressure to known vulnerabilities, and garner information using more indirect methods. All the other characters likewise more realist than representative, I would term the novel add the epithet ‘soft’ to its space opera designation.
Not mentioned thus far are the alien hisa living on Pell’s surface. Cherryh cheating a little by playing the ‘batted eyelashes and cute and furry’ card, the sentient monkey-like species are portrayed as innocent victims throughout the war amongst humans. A benevolent group living like natives in a jungle, their pidgin English and ‘love you, love you’ talk seem an all too overt ploy to gain reader sympathy. By contrast, the Athsheans of Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, though in a very similar political position as the hisa, nevertheless come across as more complex. Le Guin also playing the pity card to some degree, she nevertheless creates a species which are more relatable than the teddy bear hisa. They are easy to like, but all too obviously a gimmick.
In the end, Downbelow Station is soft space opera that describes a point in a massive interstellar war between two factions of humanity, the Company and the Union. Written in a very confident hand, some info is left between the lines—much to the enjoyment of the active reader. Sometimes feeling like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there are multiple, multiple perspectives into a wide-scale conflict affecting multiple entities, groups, and peoples, but often not much is done to distinguish them, and for that readers expecting rich characterization may be put off. But they would be missing the feat Cherryh has pulled off: a human mosaic of how war affects the parties involved—and those who would rather not be, but are dragged in regardless. Emphasis on relationships and diplomacy, fans of Star Trek will appreciate the effort more than fans of Star Wars.