Having finally watched Babylon 5 for the first time (check out my posts for that series at my Babylon 5 Hub), I decided to dive into the novels. I’ll be reading them largely in publication order and reviewing them individually as we go along. Please do not spoil later books for me. There will be SPOILERS for the book reviewed going forward.
Clark’s Law by Jim Mortimore
I haven’t written a tie-in novel, but I’m going to guess that one of the biggest pitfalls of doing so is that you have an idea for a story on one hand, and that you’ve also got the universe in which you’re writing on the other. Sometimes, those two meet nicely, and sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, you write and it’s like you’re forcing an idea into the universe in which it doesn’t quite fit. At that point, what do you do? I suspect you keep going because there’s a deadline and you don’t want to miss it. Clark’s Law by Jim Mortimore reads like this is exactly what happened. Mortimore had an idea (what if there were some controversy over the death penalty in a sci-fi setting) and a setting (Babylon 5) and then pushed them together. This novel is the result.
It doesn’t work, which is unfortunate because the central ideas are there and the prose is stronger than you might think (see below). You’ve got Clark, an ambitious, ruthless man who wants to make defining decisions for humanity as a nefarious bad guy. It fits well with the rest of the TV show at this point. There’s also an alien race, the Tuchanq, with a twist that makes them more interesting than generic aliens–their Song of Being is tied up in their sense of self, such that interrupting it requires ceremonial resurrection, in a sense. It’s kind of a cool thread. These collide as one of the Tuchanq, D’arc, thinks she’s mad and so kills a human on Babylon 5 to attempt to regain a Song of Being. Clark wants to execute this alien, having one eponymous law for all beings that includes the death penalty in the case of murder. There’s questions about the death penalty, innocence, fascinating discussion of aliens, and more here.
One thing that makes it not work is that none of the characters or even the setting feels very much like Babylon 5 as established in the show. Setting aside the simple factual errors, such as names being wrong between the book and show or Jeffrey Sinclair turning into Geoffrey Sinclair, the characters don’t all act in ways that seem genuine to them. Now, maybe I’m overselling this feeling. I know I’ve mentioned it before in my reviews of the novels. Perhaps I’m the one whose feel for the show is off. I’ve only seen it all the way through once so far, after all. That may be true, but I see on various reviews basically every other fan of B5 is saying the same thing. Something just seems off for just about every major character. Sheridan’s not as forceful or decisive as he should be, though he ultimately finds a creative way out G’Kar and Mollari are at it again, but it reads much more artificially than it should. Garibaldi is, well, he’s there but doesn’t do as much as he probably should be in a novel like this. The payoff of a tie-in novel just isn’t there. It doesn’t read like a Babylon 5 book.
Clark’s Law is almost relentlessly dark. I tend to read tie-in novels hoping for some escapism–a brush with favorite characters that reminds me of whatever medium they came from originally. Here, Mortimore assaults readers with ambiguity and darkness everywhere. From the beginning, a series of lies is told, and at the end a few truths are told. It’s a great framing mechanism and shows a surprising command of prose for a novel that apparently had a deadline of just several weeks to be written and submitted (according to The Babylon File Volume I by Andy Lane). There’s depth here that goes far beyond the pages. That’s a good thing, but it also makes the novel strangely harder to get into because if you’ve seen the show, you know the repercussions that should ripple out from the main thrust of the story just don’t really happen. Yes, Clark is bad, but something like this should have had much wider consequences. It creates a weird sense of both feeling in Babylon 5 while also making it obvious the events can’t really have taken place because they’d have been of much more note than they are.
Clark’s Law is a good enough science fiction novel with a surprising command of structure and prose. However, as a Babylon 5 novel it has to be rated as merely okay–it grasps at things larger than it manages to deliver, while also failing to get into the feel of the show. Recommended if you’re wanting a vaguely Babylon 5-esque sci-fi novel that will make you think.
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“Now, maybe I’m overselling this feeling.” Oh, god, no. “Clark’s Law” might be a good science fiction-novel, but it’s a terrible “Babylon 5”-book. Some of the other ones might be duller, more trivial, and/or written worse, but “Clark’s Law” is the only one that I threw in a corner in anger, because I got so frustrated with the totally “off” characterization.