Dark Genesis, the Birth of the Psi Corps – J. Gregory Keyes

This is the first of the two Babylon 5 novelisations I was encouraged to read (but I haven’t finished the trilogy they form, as I need to get my sticky paws on the final book). I’m still new to the whole novelisations thing, so I’m not sure what the benchmark really is for this sort of stuff, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Dark Genesis really clears it. Maybe I’m wrong, and I’ll get sucked into reading more, and look back in six months going “wow, what?”, but for the moment, that was pretty awesome.

One of the cool aspects of Babylon 5, especially as compared to… for instance… Star Trek (shush), is the exploration of telepath politics. What would actually happen if we suddenly had mind-readers? I disagree with some of the outcomes and predictions, and I have some queries about the comparison of human telepath-politics with alien telepath-politics (it really doesn’t say great things about the writers*), but it’s really really great that they explore it. There are only five series of the tv show, and there’s a lot of stuff going on, so they don’t really go into a huge amount of depth about the complexities of the telepath-politics, beyond the episodes where it matters to the plot… so of course, there’s a novel to provide all the backstory. Or in fact, a whole trilogy. You spoil us.

Ok, so maybe the GIANT BLUE FACE of Walter Koenig was a bit much...The first book of the trilogy deals with the origins of the Psi Corp, the human organisation to train and police telepaths, and the tensions that arose on earth after the discovery of real telepathy. Keyes paints a pretty grim picture of humanity’s reaction to the discovery, and not a picture I entirely agree with. We’re talking genocide here. Seriously nasty stuff. Maybe I’m an insufferable optimist, but I’d like to hope that we’d do better than that if this actually happened. Even so, he’s obviously done a lot of thinking about the way it’d play out, and we see a lot of sides of the problem. We follow a politician and some of the resistance fighters, as well as seeing snippets of other view points (including the editor of the scientific journal in which the results proving telepathy first get published) to see the balance between different people’s wants and needs around the idea that telepathy is really real. The need for public security and the desire for personal political gain, as well as the need for personal freedoms. It’s all done pretty well. From my reading of it, Keyes doesn’t really take a side (beyond “politicians are a bit power-grabby”), and this is something I really loved. There’s something worthwhile in what everyone says, and it’s really hard to pick where your loyalties lie. I have to admit, I find myself siding against the personal-freedom-defending resistance, but that’s only because the characters annoy me.

The characters are kind of what lets the book down, I will say. He’s got the brilliant backstory and political problem down just fine (and I could go on and on about that), but the people… aren’t brilliant. There’s a sort of flatness to them, especially when compared to the characters of the tv show, that is faintly irritating. I will grant, the book is really quite short, I think less than 300 pages long, and that’s not a great deal of space into which to pack character development. Likewise, he’s trying to deal with a heck of a lot in that space, encompassing a long time’s worth of political change and drama, so you can see how subtle characterisation might suffer in the final cut. But it felt like the book could really have stood being a bit longer, for the sake of giving us a little bit more feeling and depth. There’s a huge amount of potential for so many of the characters, if we could just get under their skin a bit more, and have a little more pause to consider them. For a book about (and involving) people who can read minds, it seems ironic that we don’t much get inside the characters’ heads.

Then again, is this just how novelisations go? Are they all this short? Am I sufficiently unfamiliar with the genre that I’m completely not getting it? Quite possibly. The character thing definitely feels a product of the shortness of the book, and I can’t recall ever seeing a fat novelisation sitting on a shelf. And everything else Keyes does seems pretty skilful. The pacing is beautiful, and feels very much in keeping with how the show runs; one can easily see the book being adapted to suit the screen (and I rather wish it had… it would have been better than some of the films/spin-offs we got). Everything is pretty rushed and hurried (possibly also contributing to the impracticality of in depth characterisation) but in a measured way, so it feels like a deliberate choice to keep the reader excited, rather than a sudden “OH HECK I HAVE TO END MY BOOK NOW” that you get with a lot of plot resolution. It’s just an action-packed kind of story. There’s not much in the way of variation on this, but it honestly doesn’t feel much of a loss for it, and hey, like I said, it’s not a long book. One can only do so much.

One of the things books very much set out to be in a series can do is spend too much time setting up for the sequel, and not enough time actually doing their own story. Dark Genesis straddles the line here a bit, but I’m willing to forgive it because it is very much a scene-setting book in a scene-setting trilogy. We’ve already got the tv show for where things end up, so if you’re reading this, you’re in it for the exposition and prequel points. The book spends a heck of a lot of time setting everything up perfectly for book two (spoilers, everything is set up beautifully for book two), but I think it was always destined to be somewhat like that, because of the premise of the whole series. He probably could have done it less, but it doesn’t feel like it really suffered all that much for it (again, it’s a short book; we can put up with a lot if it’s only going to be 250 pages), and the pay-off when you get to the end and see everything lined up just right… well, I think Keyes can be forgiven on this one.

So, basically. Awesome idea explored brilliantly… character novel, not so much. I’d rather that way round than the other, definitely. And I came out of it so very much wanting to read the sequel, you have no idea. Not going to lie, I’m sold on the novelisations thing.

*So humans decided that having people who could read minds roaming about happily invading thoughts was a bad idea, and so created an institution to police and prevent this infringement of privacy. Aliens though? Meh! Their telepaths can do what they like. Because only humans give a fig about personal privacy or whatever. I mean, I’m sure there are other interpretations on this, but it’s how it came across to me watching. Especially when you combine it with the later-series overtones of “oh my, look at the humans, aren’t they all so super-special? DESTINED FOR GREATNESS!”. I know why this happens in a lot of stuff, but I don’t have to like it.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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