Apparently a Hugo award winner, Downbelow Station was part of the huge pile of Christmas book swag that I’ll likely be working my way through for the rest of the year. Not something I’d normally buy for myself, I found it to be an ambitious and pretty impressive piece of sci-fi world-building, but ever so slightly dry in its execution, so I didn’t quite get as into this as I would have liked.
In our far distant future, the denizens of Earth have spread outwards and colonised space. With the discovery of other distant planets that can act as stations between the outermost reaches of the territory, humanity has splintered into separate factions. There’s the Earth Company, whose fleets patrol space and who are now in conflict with the Union, based out in the stars and wanting independence. Flitting between the opposing sides are the merchanters, who transport all the goods required to both sides, and then there are the stations themselves, set around worlds such as Pell, which is almost inhabitable by humans (they just need breathers when on world) and already populated by hisa, a humanoid race now used as workers by the humans who have set themselves up as Pell’s elite.
Pell and its station is going about its normal business when it suddenly finds itself the focal point of the ongoing war – besieged by fleeing refugees from other worlds and then occupied by the Company, the Union and the merchanters in turn. And while the ruling family – the Konstantins – struggle to maintain control and prevent harm from being done to the station and the world it orbits, there are those inside the ruling class of Pell who are more than happy to sell everyone out.
There was much to like about Downbelow Station – a huge amount of thought had clearly gone into building this universe, and there was a huge cast of characters (something I’d normally really enjoy), but for me I found the execution of the actual story a little lacking. Concentrating on political negotiations, the changing alliances between the various factions, the technical set ups of the station, how the black market worked etc, I found myself more than a little distracted at times. The hisa were about the only characters I could get into, and there were more than a few human characters who I struggled to differentiate from one another until I was given a clue in the writing as to where they were and who they were surrounded by.
That said, the world (or rather, universe) building was pretty impressive, and I’m sure that people other than me would find an awful lot to enjoy here.