Review: J. Gregory Keyes, Dark Genesis: The Birth of the Psi Corps (sf novel)

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Reviews

a cut above

Let me tell you up front that I detest media tie-ins, and I've never seen more than a few moments of any episode of Babylon 5. So when an editor friend of mine handed me an advance reader's copy of J. Gregory Keyes' B5 novel Dark Genesis: The Birth of the Psi Corps, and I saw the cover with that big TV-show logo on it, my smile stiffened a little and I took it mainly to be polite. He reassured me that it wasn't like your typical media-based book, but I'll admit I didn't quite believe him.

So why on earth am I reviewing Dark Genesis? Simple: it's pretty good.

Granted, it won't win any Nebulas for literary excellence - the plot is cinematic (by which I mean that it seems like the novelization of an unfilmed episode; some of that is probably due to the fact that this novel is based on an outline by B5's creator J. Michael Straczynski), and the prose is that particular sort of "transparent" writing practiced by authors such as Isaac Asimov or Robert Sawyer, prose whose main stylistic virtue is that, for native speakers of North American English, it is so easily read that it's invisible. Nevertheless, just as my friend had confidently predicted, I found Keyes' tale of persecuted telepaths both interesting and accessible to a sheer outsider.

The story starts in 2115 A.D., more than a century before Babylon 5 - as promised, no familiarity with the show's own milieu is required, though I'm sure there are plenty of elements that the show's fans will recognize and appreciate. Human society is still recognizably similar to our own. We are still alone in the universe, as far as we know. Humans are no longer confined to Earth, but have not yet left the Solar System. Earth is at peace, more or less; although the same sort of nation-states still manage to exist they are unified (more or less) under a powerful, though still not omnipotent, world government. There are no black helicopters here, though of course some people are still looking for them.

There is, however, a brand-new group to hate and fear: real telepaths, whose abilities are empirically verifiable, have started showing up in increasing numbers. And the reaction of the overwhelming majority of "normal" humans is the same: this new They must be dealt with.

I wish I could say that the persecution of telepaths Keyes outlines as a result of this is unrealistic, but I cannot. Keyes has a multitude of real-world examples from which to choose, after all. Governments, corporations and individuals all display entirely plausible and conflicting desires to exterminate and to control such talents, while no one, not even most of the telepaths themselves, believe that they can just be left alone. The factions polarize quickly: the reactionary forces of extermination, those of control (who enjoy both an evolutionary advantage due to their willingness to take advantage of telepathically-acquired information, and a political one due to their inhabiting the apparent middle ground between anarchy and genocide), and splintered groups of rogue telepaths gradually coalescing into a single experienced guerrilla force.

Wisely, Keyes shows us developments through the eyes of individuals rather than through blocks of exposition. Rather unwisely, most of those eyes are those of stock characters - Lee Crawford, the lone politician with integrity, or Fiona, the plucky femme rebel, come to mind - but that, like the workaday prose, comes as a hazard of the (sub)genre, I suppose, and Keyes' expertise does allow his characters to protrude at least a little bit into the third dimension.

I won't go into the rest of the plot for fear of inserting too many spoilers, but I will note that Keyes covers a lot of ground in this first novel of a planned trilogy of prequels, bringing in elements that reminded me of the aforementioned Robert Sawyer's novels (Sawyer's recent Factoring Humanity, by the way, is quite good in its own right) in their big-picture sweep.

All in all, this novel is a good read, far better than I'd expected (and far better, I suspect, than the average media-based book). It might well serve as a good entry point for someone you'd like to become interested in the B5 universe. As for me, I still detest media tie-ins in general... but this one, this one (and, I'm betting, its planned sequels) is worth picking up.

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This file was last updated November 30, 1998.

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