Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday Review: Downbelow Station

For this edition of the Friday Revew, I bring you:


By CJ Cherryh

I'm going to get a lot of hate for this one, I think. Downbelow Station is an older book, by the well-renowed CJ Cherryh, that came out in 1981. To hear the wikipedia synopsis of it, it's an epic story of war between corporate imperialists, beleaguered colonists and a scrappy band of merchants. I didn't miss the part of the book that this occurred in, but I honestly felt the war itself was a fairly distant thing, and the book is more of the effects of war.

The main setting is "Downbelow Station," an independent space station orbiting a slightly uninhabitable planet called Pell or, "Downbelow." This planet's atmosphere is almost good enough for humans, but they can't live outside indefinitely. However, the sentient proto-Ewok creatures that live on the planet are capable of surviving just fine in normal human atmosphere. This will be important.

This is a multi-POV story, and honestly it doesn't matter which POV you're reading, because everyone is reprehensible. Maybe that's good, but I don't think it was intended. Most of the characters are people who live on Downbelow station, and follows their story as their mostly self-sufficient station is bombarded by refugees from other stations as the war between the Alliance and the Union grows. The ever-pragmatic citizens of DS put all these refugees into one section of the station, give them minimal food, restrict their movements, and call them "Q" for "Quarantine." There's a strong antagonism between DS and the rest of the human civilization, as though because they have a planet and Ewok slaves they are better than everyone out there.

Oh, right. The Ewok slaves. They're called the Hisa, and I know this book came out before "A New Hope" but they're Negroes. I mean Ewoks.

Have you ever read old Jules Verne stories? There's one called "The Mysterious Island" that you can read for free in French and English at the Gutenberg Project. In it, one of the main characters owns a slave. That slave is described in terms that you or I would likely use to describe a dog. Sort of a friendly dismissiveness, a simplification of motivations. "That Negro just loves his massa" rather than "that black slave fears that if his master is killed and he returns alive that he and his family will be killed."

This book does very little to address the issue of having sentient slaves other than to sort of express (from a Hisa POV) that the Hisa just love their masters, and if only they just weren't so stupid.

There's also a moment where one of the heirs to the DS throne is on the planet itself, the station having been conquered by some Union troops or something, and he's with a lot of refugees who were working on the planet's surface. And while he's looking out onto the refugees, worrying about their families and loved ones back on the station, he realizes that "wow, the people from Q have families too!"

Wow. Incredible. Those people from stations just like yours who look like you talk like you and are like you in almost every way have similar emotions and fears as you? My god, I'm so surprised.

Here's my main beef. If you're going to write about a bunch of slaveowning racists, don't make them so incredibly stupid. This book was screaming white privilege at me the entire time. "Everything would just be fine if we ran on the American ideals of an unregulated free market."

A lot of the characters in this book are well put-together, but the sort of idiot colonialism that is represented by these supposedly "freedom loving anti-establishment" merchant folk was just too much bigotry for me to take. I don't particularly blame CJ Cherryh for writing a novel like this -- it was the 80s and I'm sure no one told her better. Her tech is realistic and a lot of her characters are really well grounded, but so many aren't. This book just hit on a lot of stupid points for me, and also felt like it was promoting slavery, so long as the slave race is stupid and easy to control.

It's impossible to predict how your book will be received, or what people will pay the most attention to in a book, but I felt like the parts of the book I had the most problem with were the parts that were the least essential to the entire plot. The Hisa don't matter to the plot, they're just there, as slaves. The people of DS are special because they have this planet that the don't really use, but there's no real reason that they should have ownership or why someone can't just take the planet from them at a moment's notice.

This book received critical acclaim and won a Hugo award. I don't think it deserved them. You can read to decide, but I wouldn't waste the time.

ONE WORD REVIEW: DISTASTEFUL                                                     B/W/D: DONT

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