I began my second run of the series with In the Beginning, which provided an excellent place to start a second trip through the epic by virtue of including most of the series' major players: Delenn, Sheridan, Sinclair, Londo, G'Kar, the Shadows, the Vorlons... almost all of the major pieces on the chessboard got some play in that telefilm. However, one major group was not really touched on: the telepaths.
So for my second review, I will now go approximately 150 years back in time to look at the birth of the human telepaths, and the creation of the Psi Corps.
150 years before the Earth-Minbari War, the future of the human race was changed forever when a college study uncovers indisputable evidence that there are genuine telepaths walking among us.
The news is greeted with all the hysteria you would expect of the worst of the human race. Some countries institute wholesale pogroms against telepaths (or anyone remotely suspected of being a telepath). Other countries severely restrict the rights of telepaths. And even in so-called "civilized" countries, many individuals react with fear and violence.
Senator Lee Crawford, a congressman whose political career is dying due to his obsession with finding alien life among the stars, seizes on the telepath issue to save his career. A pragmatic man, it is Crawford who oversees the creation of the Psi-Corps. At first created as a way to protect telepaths from outside discrimination and "normals" from infringement of their privacy by telepaths, the Corps soon becomes an instrument of repression in itself. It isn't long before some telepaths rebel against the Corps - only to find themselves ruthlessly hunted by the very organization that professes to be their protector.
Dark Genesis: The Birth of the Psi-Corps is caught midway between being a novel and being a "future history," and it is probably more successful as the latter. For those who have seen Babylon 5, it is an often fascinating read. Science fiction fans not familiar with the series, however, would likely appreciate some of the concepts but would also complain (with justification) that several characters and ideas are underdeveloped.
Written by J. Gregory Keyes from a detailed outline by J. Michael Straczynski, this book provides excellent, absorbing backstory for the Babylon 5 universe. It starts at the logical place for any story to begin: at the beginning, with the discovery of the existence of human telepaths. There is something very appealing about the manner of this discovery: it is all the result of a study undertaken as a college prank. One wonders if that detail was Straczynski's brainchild or Keyes'. Either way, it is a nice touch, a reminder that the truly momentous discoveries are as likely to be the result of chance and accident as design.
There is further appeal to the world in which the book begins. 2115 is not really very far in the future, when you pause and think about it. We will never live long enough to see that year, but some our children - and certainly our grandchildren - will. Fittingly, this is a world that is very recognizable as our own. There are TV talk shows in which actresses hock their latest films while talk show hosts crack forced and lewd jokes at the audience; there are growing pains as the newly-formed Earth Alliance struggles gamely to make one world of vastly different countries; and though colonies have been created on the moon and are being contemplated on Mars, these colonies are very much in their early stages of development.
Against this only slightly futuristic background, the reaction to the discovery of telepaths appears very believable. Some countries shelter them, insisting on maintaining human rights. Countries with military dictatorships, or less developed nations shrouded in superstition, react with pogroms. And even in the "enlightened, democratic" nations, individual people react with fear, panic, and violence.
The novel's focus quickly turns to Senator Lee Crawford. In yet another of those touches that add authenticity, Crawford's major dream and goal in life has nothing to do with telepaths. Crawford is obsessed with the idea of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and he has all the right reasons for pursuing this obsession. "There's somebody out there," he insists when we first see him, in conversation with a reporter, "they might be angels; they might be devils. Frankly, I think they'll be most dangerous if they're just folks like us. But... we'll be a lot better off if we notice them before they notice us." Despite speaking persuasively and intelligently on this point, his obsession is proving the ruin of his political career.
Crawford seizes on the telepath situation, and by taking a moderate/conservative approach while his colleagues are panicking, he saves his career and consolidates a power base in the Senate. But his real goal in doing so has less to do with the telepath situation, and more to do with furthering his space exploration projects. The telepaths are a means to an end for him, a tool that he is willing to use quite ruthlessly to achieve his true ambitions.
Crawford is a very strong character. He has strong convictions and beliefs, and is largely proved right in a number of them. Nevertheless, he is a political creature, very willing to use others for his own ends and more than capable of discarding allies who cease to be useful. As the book progresses, he becomes ever more powerful and ever more ruthless. I found it impossible not to like Crawford in spite of himself; but I also found it impossible not to be made uneasy by how plausible his rise to power really seemed. Just look to the example of a certain highly charismatic and driven ex-Chancellor of Germany; Crawford is a far better and saner man than Hitler (to understate severely), but there are certainly parallels in their rise from relative obscurity to ultimate power.
A wonderfully complex, larger-than-life figure, Crawford is both the book's greatest asset and a bit of a curse: in a novel covering 75 years, it is clear that Crawford cannot be the central focus of the full narrative. Once Crawford exits the story at about its midpoint, the book never quite escapes from his shadow. His successor, the coldly secretive Kevin Vacit, is also a convincingly complex character; but to me, at least, Vacit never manages to be quite as compelling as Crawford. Vacit's journey is interesting, but it never evokes the resonance of the Senator who, as a little boy, would shine his flashlight at the stars dreaming of alien races.
This is, of course, a TV tie-in novel; and the writing is as sparse and uncluttered as you would expect from that fact. This is not a criticism: there's much to be said for writing that simply services the story. I've seen too many cases of writers obsessed with being "literary" to the point that pretentious literary devices end up hindering the story instead of helping it.
No, Keyes' fast, highly readable style is not a weakness in any way. However, the book's length is a weakness. The story begins in 2115 and ends in 2189. Three-quarters of a century is covered in this book, three generations of characters, many great changes... all in 267 pages. This is a story that could easily support twice that length.
To give credit where it's due, Keyes does a serviceable job of fitting everything in. But some character development, and some major story transitions, do suffer as a result of the book's brevity. Crawford and Vacit get plenty of development, but many wonderfully-conceived secondary characters are barely in the narrative long enough to make an impression.
Ninon Davion, for example, a Psi-Cop with an irreverent sense of humor, provides a humanizing face for the Corps and ends up playing a very important role in the narrative. She is a fun character, too, a vital and likable breath of fresh air when we meet her. She is also in exactly one chapter of the entire book. Dr. Alice Kimbrell, who publishes the initial study disclosing the existence of telepaths, is a very major character early in the book... and virtually disappears from the narrative after the first 50 or so pages. The "family" that travels with rogue telepath lovers "Monkey" and "Blood" are around long enough to get names and one or two defining traits per character, but are not given enough attention to truly come alive. Many names and faces and dates run through the novel. But much like a history text that tries to cover an entire century in a single chapter, too many of them end up going by in a blur.
However, it is a fast, absorbing read. And for every underdeveloped character, there's at least one character who comes alive on the page: Crawford and Vacit; dangerously unstable Desa "Blood" Alexander, whose hatred of "mundanes" is firmly rooted in bitter first-hand experience; her granddaughter, Natasha Alexander, who becomes Kevin Vacit's right hand and whose complex relationship with Vacit develops into a kind of platonic love affair; and self-hating Psi-Cop Stephen Walters, to name just a few. In addition, to see such an ambitious story as this told in a TV tie-in novel is rare enough to be praiseworthy in itself.
Finally, if the worst I can say for a book is that it left me wanting more, then I cannot help but consider it a good book. Good... but by being forced to cover too much ground in too brief a span, true greatness - like Crawford's stars - ends up just eluding its grasp.