If you’re going to say you know something about the science fiction genre (and for my own odd reasons I want to be able to say that*), you have to read C.J. Cherryh. She is one of the genre’s most respected writers both for the depth of her “world building” as they call it, and for the application of social and political theory that she brings to her works.
Downbelow Station is a book about war. The fact that it is war that takes place on spaceships and is fought with laser beams is really beside the point. It’s about nationalism, personal ambition and various means of social control. It is also at least partially a cold war metaphor, though not at all a clunky obvious one. The characters are bored soldiers, ambitious bureaucrats, spoiled aristocrats, mercenaries and refugees. What Cherryh is trying to do is interesting, and the observations about war and how humanity handles itself during it are interesting. The dialogue and character development is just about as good as it gets in SF, but I found the book awfully frustrating as well. I am all for books that assume the reader can draw his or her own conclusions, but when you’re asking the reader to draw conclusions about the way spaceflight works three hundred years in the future, or how an alien race will behave, its helpful to give some clues. I felt lost for big sections of this book, which was a shame, because I am sure I missed some of the subtlety in Cherryh’s portrayal of the people caught up in this world. The sequel to Downbelow Station, Cyteen, is on my massive to read list, but I think after finishing this one, it is going to have to wait a while.