Deadly Relations, Bester Ascendant – J. Gregory Keyes

And following on from Dark Genesis immediately, we have the second of the Psi Corp novelisations. The title makes it pretty clear that this one is a much closer tie-in to the tv series from the get-go, and pretty much gives you the gist of the plot. But then again, these aren’t books about “what’s going to be the ending?”. It’s very much about filling in all the interesting gaps we’ve been wondering about, and about the way we get to the end point we already know.

Ok, so the artwork on the cover is TERRIBLE. Poor Walter Koenig what have they done to your face?

That said, by contrast to the previous book, the sense of building up to a set point is actually drastically reduced in Deadly Relations. Not completely – I still felt like we were aiming for something, after all – but when you get to the end of DG, you feel very much like the stage has been set… and at the start of DR, on walks Alfred Bester. Now, my views here are a little biased, as the person who encouraged me to read these happens to be a teeny-weeny bit of a fan of Bester’s, so there’s been a fair bit of discussion around him and I’ve ended up coming to agree, possibly just infected with his enthusiasm. But even so, I suspect he’d be someone I’d want to read about. I mean, first off, he’s played by Walter Koenig. Who is excellent. I think we can all agree on this point. But secondly he’s… well, he’s evil. But he’s also really not evil. He occupies a really interesting position in that we can completely see where he’s coming from and why he feels as he does and does as he does (well… not entirely on the “does as he does”, but mostly), while at the same time, completely acknowledging that he’s not a very nice man and is not an unreasonable choice of baddy for many episodes. His morality and choices are the perfect contrast to the good guys (who are obviously good but do make some very questionable decisions some of the time, mostly because Sheridan is an idiot who put him in charge no really why, why would you do that?) – they occupy very different but also quite equivalent zones of grey-ness. It’s fantastic, but not fully explored on the show. Hence why the novelisation is so great to go into it.

We start from the very beginning (a very good place to start) of Bester’s life, and follow him all the way to adulthood. Even if I didn’t sympathise with him a bit beforehand, surely this would have done it? Add to that the fact that he’s a socially awkward, rules-obeying little nerd boy. SOLD. Such a great deal of empathy going on with his early years it was unreal. You get to follow him growing up and not understanding how people work and interact, and I think it would be impossible not to love him after all that. Even though you know where he’s going to end up, what goals he will reach, Keyes does a damn good job about making you worry and care that he gets there. But it’s not really about that… because we do know he’ll get there. It’s about filling in the blanks of the why and how, and answering all those niggling little questions I imagine everyone has when they watch a tv show, wondering where everything came from. And it’s very much about creating a huge amount of sympathy for someone who is, essentially, one of the big long-running baddies of the series. In this, Keyes is so so much in keeping with the show. If we ignore Sheridan (let us always ignore Sheridan; it’s for the best), Babylon 5 does a lot of good work in helping us see why everyone does what they does. Even the delusional, depraved pseudo-Roman emperor, we get to see why he’s like that. DR just kicks that up a step and gets us right inside the head of one of the most interesting characters in the series.

Like the previous book, it does, however, suffer from its brevity. Yes, we go beautifully in depth into Bester’s head… but we don’t really get to see enough of those around him. To condense the timescale into a manageable portion, Keyes has made everything very episodic. We jump from one important point to the next, pausing long enough to get a sense of things, but not long enough to get a proper impression of everyone else. Partly, we can attribute this to our Bester-perspective. He very much makes clear that he does not understand how people work, and so a flat and poorly-detailed view of other people is to be expected. But it does kind of follow through from the previous book, and there’s some stuff that isn’t Bester-perspective where this holds true… so maybe that’s just how Keyes works. Or again, size-constraint. It’s only a 266 page book; I’m impressed he crammed as much in as he did.

What he doesn’t do, and what I think the book benefits from, is engage at all with the stuff of the tv show. We are purely in backstory territory here, and Babylon 5 itself only gets mentioned ever so briefly right at the end of the book. I may have to eat my words when I get to book three, I admit, as for all I know that one thoroughly engages with the tv show and we get it all from a completely different point of view. And maybe that would work. But from what I have read and what we’re given in books one and two, I think the lack of engagement with the original material is a really really good idea. Purely pragmatically, it avoids the possibility of disagreement over points of trivia, which would definitely be spotted by the sort of people reading novelisations. But more importantly, I think going over the same ground wouldn’t really add anything for anyone. Filling out the background, yes, so much value there. Seeing where what we already have has come from, very much. Just doing the same thing again but seeing it through a different character’s eyes? Eh, I’m alright. I think there are better ways to enjoy the periphery of something you like.

I’m not saying much I didn’t already say in the previous post, I know. And the two books do have much of the same good points. We get a continuation of the interesting telepath future-earth politics in this one, we see the resistance and the Psi Corps, the two halves of the telepath world covering both sides of the issue of how the world would cope with such a thing. Keyes continues to be more cynical than I am about humanity, but he does paint a realistic and plausible, if depressing, view of how everything would play out. But I’ve focussed on Bester because that’s what DR really does that the previous one doesn’t – we do at least get some charater-novel stuff (with the above detailed issues with any supporting characters). They’re both really really enjoyable books, and they add a lot to the tv-show stories, without engaging too closely in the details of them, which I think is a really nice way of doing it. I’ll definitely read the third book, and possibly more Babylon 5 novelisations in future (and probably novelisations of other things too), so I don’t think I can say much more in their praise. Not perfect, but I have definitely been missing out by not going into the novelisation side of things.

I’m not entirely certain what I’ll be posting next. After I finished this, I read Dune (again) and The Just City by Jo Walton. Whether I’ll ‘blog about them is another matter, however, as both have problems associated with them that I’m not sure I really want to grapple with. We shall see.

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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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