The "prehistory" of Babylon 5 continues with Deadly Relations: Bester Ascendant, the second in the Psi-Corps trilogy written by J. Gregory Keyes from outlines by J. Michael Straczynski.
Al Bester is a telepath of exceptional ability. Idealistic as a youth, Bester believes in Psi Corps and all its principles and doctrine with every fiber of his being. He is the perpetual outsider, his introverted nature making it difficult for him to befriend others. Nevertheless, he clings to the Corps to make a place for himself, becoming a Psi Cop under the wing of the great Psi Cop Sandoval Bey, hunting down the rogue telepaths known as "blips." For their own protection, of course.
Life has many hard lessons for the idealistic Bester, however. The "mundane" (as the telepaths call the "normals") who heads the Corps has a fear and hatred of telepaths, and a particular grudge against Bester. The world of the mundanes outside the Corps is harsh, with seemingly every non-telepath regarding all telepaths with antipathy. The mundane police may be required to cooperate with the Psi Cops, but they certainly don't like them. And Bester finds his loyalties to the Corps and all it stands for constantly tested - first by his lover, then by his wife, then by his own realization as to how the Corps is being used as political leverage by the mundanes, who have all the political power despite being so clearly inferior to Bester and his kind...
As with Dark Genesis, this novel covers a lot of ground in a fairly short page count. The book opens in 2195, and (not counting a brief epilogue) the main action ends in 2256, as the ill-fated Icarus expedition is being prepared. As a result, almost as many years go by here as in Dark Genesis.
Nevertheless, this is a much better novel than Dark Genesis was. Like its predecessor, it covers a lot of ground; like its predecessor, names and dates go by in a hurry, sometimes before the characters have a chance to really imprint themselves on the reader; and like its predecessor, its structure is largely that of a string of episodes rather than a single narrative.
But the focus is much tighter, and the episodes manage to build a thematic unity that tells a cohesive story in spite of its broad canvas: the rise, and emotional fall, of Alfred Bester.
The story is a tragedy. Not the old-style Shakespearean tragedies, which inevitably end with the hero's death. No, as this book covers Bester's life prior to Babylon 5, he obviously survives it, and thrives as he rises to power. It probably most reminds me of Michael Corleone's journey in the first two Godfather films. Like Michael, Bester begins his journey as an idealist and an innocent. Like Michael, he does what he believes he has to do for the good of his family. And like Michael, by the end of his journey he has transformed from a basically good man into a monster.
The book repeatedly alludes to Akira Kurosawa's classic movie, Rashomon. As any film buff must be aware, this movie was a classic story of how a single event can look very different when viewed from different perspectives. That is a theme to keep in mind when reading this novel. In Babylon 5, Bester was always the villain (well, almost always). We knew instantly when he stepped on stage in "Mind War" that he was a monster. But here, we get a chance to look through Bester's eyes, to walk in his shoes, as it were. The Babylon 5 universe looks very different from the perspective of Al Bester.
The entire story is presented through Bester's eyes. We live his early indoctrination in the Psi Corps. We experience his childhood games of "Cops and Blips," and we feel the hatred and uneasiness of every mundane he encounters. There are no sympathetic mundanes in the story. The mundane head of the Psi Corps has a personal vendetta against Bester. The mundanes hiding rogue "blips" (telepaths who flee the Psi Corps) on Bester's early hunts prove not to be idealists, but exploiters, selling a young telepath girl to a rapist for money. The mundane police are seen, through Bester's eyes and mind, to be corrupt and uncaring. When a serial killer targets telepaths on an off-world colony, Bester instantly sees that the police, while not actively complicit, are also not particularly interested in bringing the murderer to justice. We experience Bester's social snubs, his failures, his rejections, and his triumphs.
The effect, over the course is the novel, is to make us become Bester's accomplices. When he starts to bend the rules, we side with him. After all, breaking a rule to catch a serial killer or uncover a conspiracy is perfectly acceptable. Isn't it? When Bester meets with an old member of his Cadre on Mars, and that old member passes along information of a conspiracy against the telepaths by mundanes working in Psi Corps, it is a scene right out of the classic paranoid thrillers of the '70's. Bester is the underdog, fleeing and working to expose the powerful government forces arrayed against him. When he begins building his own force to defend his people against that government, we are encouraged to see him as his people must - not a monster, not a villain, but a hero. He is the "last, best hope for the telepaths," if you will.
Heroes and villains have often been largely a matter of perspective. Reading this book, it is not difficult to see Bester as a heroic figure. The odd boy out, the boy with no friends, the man who failed spectacularly at every personal relationship he ever attempted, has appointed himself the guardian of his people. He may not be able to truly love another human being, but he can love the telepaths as a species (and from Bester's viewpoint, the telepaths are a separate species). Once that is understood - first that Bester will do anything to protect his people, and second that he sees "mundanes" as being another, lesser species - his deeds, as villainous as they may become over the course of the series, become far easier to comprehend.
Supporting characters are more consistently strong here than they were in Dark Genesis. Bester's mentor, Sandoval Bey, may be the book's best original character. A contemplative man with a love of music and culture, Bey teaches Bester the secret to successfully hunting his quarry - to understand and learn to love the prey. Elizabeth Montoya, the great love of Bester's life, is brought vividly and passionately to life. When she determines to leave Psi Corps, this fact - and Bester's reaction to it - becomes the first irreversible step toward Bester's fall from humanity. A young, idealistic Lyta Alexander cameos near the end of the book, and her naiveté is a stark contrast to Bester's cynicism. Lyta really is very like the young Bester at this point; ironically, Lyta in Season 5 is very like the older Bester, willing to do anything for what she sees as the good of her people. It's just as well Lyta and Bester end up on opposite sides; together, they would have been unstoppable.
Even the infamous Byron appears briefly (and gets a last name), though as a character he doesn't make much of an impression. It's still nice to see the transport incident dramatized in context, however... and the scene does mark the moment at which we are finally jarred out of Bester's viewpoint, and realize what our "hero" has truly become. As Bester himself realizes several chapters earlier, by this point he is dead inside. "There is nothing in my heart," he realizes chillingly. The man has become a monster, and his journey is a heartbreaking one because - in this book, at least - we cannot bring ourselves to hate him.
Overall, this novel is a triumph. As with Dark Genesis, though, I could wish for an extra 100 pages to flesh out certain incidents and supporting characters. As with that book, there's too much material going by too quickly for everything to be as effective as I sometimes felt it should have been. Still, unlike Dark Genesis, this book manages to stand as a fine novel all on its own.
Next Up: Anna Sheridan and Mr. Morden learn that some sleeping things are best not wakened in The Shadow Within.