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.
Betrayals by S.M. Stirling
S.M. Stirling is a well-known name in speculative fiction, largely due to his alternate history Draka novels. I’ve not read those books, as I’ve long been intimidated by finding a random one on a library or bookstore shelf, cracking the cover, and seeing a lengthy list of books I ought to read first. Betrayals shows me Stirling is capable of weaving an intriguing yarn, but it doesn’t really capture the feel of Babylon 5.
The main story centers around two primary points of conflict: the first is a gathering of Centauri and Narn diplomats on Babylon 5; the second is the revelation of a pair of T’ll, apparently long-time enemies of the Narn. The Narn, apparently, are the occupying forces on the planet T’ll, and this leads to a deep and abiding enmity between their peoples. With these stages set for conflict, the novel had a feeling that it should have huge implications, but the plot ultimately plays out at too small a scale for it to fully sell its premise.
One reason I say this is that the T’ll-Narn conflict is, to my knowledge, entirely contained within this novel. I looked up “T’ll” in the Babylon 5 Encyclopedia and came up empty, unless I was looking the wrong places. With that in mind, it makes it difficult to fathom how an apparently generations-spanning hatred and conflict can fit into this novel. That question is made especially difficult when it gets boiled down to such a microcosm of conflict that we’re simultaneously supposed to believe has much wider implications. I like the idea of this as a central conflict. The Narn occupying a planet and on a small scale and being devastated by the Centauri in a broader scale, upscaled conflict that is similar makes for quite the potential for a parable or deeper meaning somewhere. That never seems to happen, and we never really get the payoff that such a premise promises as a possibility.
Centering this planetary conflict in the midst of the wider Centauri-Narn conflict, again, hints at a broader possibility here, but because this is set in the Babylon 5 universe, and not in an abstract, standalone science fiction novel, we have to deal with it not making much sense of how many characters act. There are a few fun moments with Mollari, but G’Kar seems out of sorts the whole time, seeming out of character nearly every time he appears on the page.
All of this is unfortunate, because there are other cool scenes set within this novel, such as the smuggling of the T’llin twins in as statues. It doesn’t make a ton of sense and requires a little more science = magic than we’re used to in Babylon 5, but it’s a great idea nonetheless. Garibaldi has some okay character moments, but they are few and far between. Much of the rest of the main cast seems shadows in the background. Again, this would be a fine decision if the rest of the story managed to maintain a sense of well, making sense in Babylon 5’s established operating grounds.
Betrayals hints at great ideas and broader conflicts than it manages to deliver. It ends up reading more like a Babylon 5-themed plot in a kind of alternate universe. As a standalone novel, it has some good ideas, but it feels displaced in the universe in which it’s set. It’s an okay read, but ultimately frustrating in its delivery.
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