Downbelow Station brings the politics of European colonialism into an interplanetary setting. The Earth Company (a private colonial firm similar to the East India Company) dominates the inhabitants of humanity’s space colonies as Earth remains the only source of food and supplies. But then Pell’s World, the first new Earth-like planet, is discovered and suddenly the colonies no longer need Earth, but earth still needs the colonies. The colonies declare themselves an independent Union and the Company begins to mass its space fleet to capture Pell’s World and re-establish dominance.
As part of the larger context of colonial issues, Cherryh also brings the plight of indigenous natives into the story. Pell’s World was presumed to be uninhabited when the colonists began to exploit it, but the political situation becomes even more problematic when it is discovered that a simple culture exists among the primate like inhabitants known as the Hisa.
The narrative of Downbelow Station is focused on the inhabitants of the space station that orbits Pell’s World, which they refer to as Downbelow. Stationmaster Angelo Konstatin is forced to deal with one crisis after another, including crowds of refugees, merchant shippers forming their own alliance, and belligerent Company officers. The other main character is Captain Signy Mallory, the commander of the Company ship Norway. Mallory is as arrogant as any of the captains, but Company tactics force her to reconsider her loyalties.
Downbelow Station is the definitive space station novel. It is a classic space opera and a past winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel. It is the first book in a series called the Company Wars. Fans of military Science Fiction authors like David Weber and Elizabeth Moon as well as fans of more sociological Science Fiction like that of Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula Le Guin should enjoy this book.