SHORT STORY REVIEW: “Genius Loci” by J. Michael Straczynski

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Today we look at a short story written by Babylon 5 creator Joe Strazynski himself, telling the further adventures of Lyta and G’kar.

PLAY BY PLAY

Six weeks after leaving Babylon 5, G’kar and Lyta are still both dodging unwanted attention, but G’kar is doing a particularly bad job of it. He’s trysting with any female who has even reasonably compatible anatomy. After bedding an alien princess, G’kar finds himself in a major brawl. He and Lyta elect to leave the planet Durk 3 in a hurry.

Since Lyta has long wanted a homeworld for telepaths, they decide to check out legends that such a planet already exists. En rout through hyperspace, they come across one of those big ball-shaped space liners that the Psi Corps is secretly using as warships. It’s all-but-derelict, the crew dead except for one, but he doesn’t last long. He imparts a typically cryptic warning before passing, and then Lyta and G’kar wonder how the crew could have starved to death when the ship’s stores are full of food. (Foreshadowing! Your key to quality literature!)

Lyta decides to commit the ship - and the bodies aboard - to the deep, and sets it adrift far off the normal pathways thorough hyperspace, where no one will ever find it; a perpetually drifting tomb. They go back to looking for the legendary planet of Telepaths.

Which they find pretty much without incident, in about eleven seconds. It’s a beautiful earth-type world, but Lyta and G’kar quickly get separated on the surface. G’kar is found by a proud band of Narn who freed themselves from their Centauri masters, and carved out a noble savage existence for themselves on this unnamed world. It’s idyllic! Lyta, meanwhile, finds herself amongst a proud band of telepaths who freed themselves from their Psicorps masters, and carved out a noble savage existence for themselves on this unamed world. It’s idyllic!

Of course all is not as it seems: Both groups seem unaware of each other, or pretend to be, and as time passes, each group proves to have glaring holes in knowledge basic to their respective groups, and attitudes that seem out of place. Eventually, G’kar simply tells his hosts that they are not who they pretend to be, and sits tight until someone shows up to explain things to him. He refuses to play along.

Lyta comes to the same conclusion at about the same time, but for her the veil is lifted and she realizes she - and G’kar, and the crew of the Psi Corps ship before them - have been living inside a very powerful telepathic illusion. They’re on the planet, but not surrounded by their own kind, and though they think they’ve been eating all along, they really haven’t been. That’s how the crew of the ship starved: They hadn’t realized they were starving.

The person behind this turns out to be the ecosphere of the planet itself: most of the creatures on the planet are naturally telepathic, and hence the entire ecosphere evolved fairly quickly into a hive mind. Old creatures die, new ones are born, just as are cells in our own bodies, but the mind survives. It hadn’t know there was anything else out there until aliens started landing on the world, and since that time it’s been very interested in this concept of “other” and “Self.” By feeding self-destructive illusory lies to interlopers, it’s both protected itself and learned about the outside universe.

Now that the jig is up, however, the planet decides to kill Lyta. All kinds of animals attack, but she sends the command “Die” to the ecosphere, and every animal on the planet kills itself.

As they fly off into space, Lyta explains all this to G’kar.

“You killed an entire *planet?*” he asks, incredulously.

“It pissed me off,” she says.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Wow, that really wasn’t very good, was it?

I mean, it’s not scream-out-loud awful or anything, but it doesn’t really seem worth the price of admission either. Granted, it’s interesting enough, I guess. There’s one or two neat ideas in there, and a couple interesting character observations, but one can’t escape the feeling of “Why bother?” It’s just kind of a doddle. If taken as a script treatment, it might eventually have evolved into a fair episode of Crusade, or (more likely) The New Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits (1990s version) but at root it’s an anthological story that just kinda’ doesn’t jibe with the arc-driven B5 universe.

Yeah, yeah, I know: Joe wrote it, it’s cannon, I’m not questioning that at all, it’s just that after all the fuss I went through to find this story (It was published in Amazing Stories # 599), I’m a little bit disappointed. It’s a York Peppermint Patty for desert, with no mean, while I was hoping for a steak, or at least a burger.

Structurally, the story is a little disjointed. It starts off with a kind of James Bond Movie teaser to let us know there have been previous adventures that we didn’t see. This is ostensibly supposed to be funny, but it falls kind of flat. The incident with the ghost ship takes up a fair amount of conceptual space with no real payoff, and then the whole incident on the planet seems rushed.

It *IS* an interesting idea: an entire ecosphere as one organism, and it’s a comparatively rarely-used one, though it’s not entirely original. The best example would be Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris,” about a large, sapient ocean on a water world. (“Genius Loci,” by the way, means “The Spirit of the Place.” The phrase cropped up in an episode of Crusade, as we shall see in a bit)

The idea of death by illusion is also a pretty interesting, but likewise not terribly new. The most famous use of this would probably be Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven” story from The Martian Chronicles. The original Trek pilot, “The Cage,” made use of variations on the theme.

I’m confused by the timing of this episode: We’re told it takes place six weeks after “Objects in Motion,” the third-to-the-last episode of Babylon 5. We’re also told that it takes place a year after Byron’s death. He died in “Phoenix Rising,” which was only nine episodes previous to that. What are we to make of this? That Season five took like eighteen months? That the first eleven episodes of the season took place over the course of two weeks, and then nothing of any consequence happened for half a year? Just how long was Lyta in that cell, anyway? Not only is Byron a terrible because of his inherent awfulness, but also because he encrapulates everything around him. Not even continuity can survive Byron’s gravitational singularity of pointlessness.

Actually, thinking about it now, some of these chronological problems are the same ones Peter David’s first Centauri Prime book had. The events in that book simply don’t fit in with the sequence of events in the show, though both are canonical. This makes me wonder if JMS’ own chronology was a bit sketchy while filming season 5.

Lyta’s actions regarding the Psi Corps ghost ship are entirely illogical, and actually work against her own stated purpose. She’s marshaling her rebel forces for a war, right? They’re the underdogs? It’s going to be an uphill fight? Wouldn’t a fully-functioning warship be kinda’ handy? Even if they can’t use it as a weapon, it would be full of all kinds of stuff that would be useful: codes, communications equipment, maps of secret bases, that kind of thing. For that matter, why doesn’t Lyta just have G’kar fly the thing back to earth, plop it into orbit and say “Lucy, you gots a lot of ‘splanin’ to do!” I mean, seriously, having evidence like that would conclusively prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Psicorps is evil. Something that big could probably prevent the war.

But, nope, Lyta just kicks it off into space. Sigh.

On that note: I was under the impression that Lyta’s two-year deadline to Garibaldi was so she could go out, build an army, get organized, develop a strategy, and be ready to fight. Here we’re effectively told that she’s just trying to decompress and get her head ready. A little “Me Time.” Feh.

G’kar wonders absently if his randy behavior since leaving the station was an attempt to sully The Prophet G’kar’s reputation. It’s a nice touch, mostly wasted. His ship is called the Na’Toth. That’s a nice touch, as well.

Honestly, this is a leader? Yeah, yeah, I know we’re supposed to have a vaunted opinion of her, but come on, really? If she’s large and in charger, it’s certainly not being telegraphed. I don’t blame that on the actress at all, since she’s not on hand. This is just a short story, remember? And yet it sort of erodes my ability to take her seriously. Basically ever since Season 5 started her character has been overexposed and underused. This is G’kar and Lyta Mutt-and-Jeffing their way through the universe, I should totally love this! I don’t. There’s nothing here to love, just to acknowledge and move on, or perhaps wonder if the spark that made B5 so great truly is gone.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS STORY?

There's really nothing of a political nature here, but the Psicorps are effectively thought police, which we're against, so, yeah.

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