I will look upon him who shall have taught me this Art as one of my parents. I will share my substance with him, and I will supply his necessities if he be in need. I will regard his offspring as my own brethren and I will teach them this Art by precept, by lecture, and by every mode of teaching; and I will teach this Art to all others.
The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of mankind according tom my ability and judgment, and not for hurt or wrong. I will give no deadly thought to any, though it be asked of me.
Whatsoever mind I enter, there will I go for the benefit of man, refraining from all wrong-doing and corruption. Whatsoever thoughts I see or hear in the mind of man which ought not to be made known, I will keep silence thereon, counting such things as sacred secrets.
—The Esper Pledge, from The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester (1953)
I’ve heard that J. Michael Straczynski is a Dune fan. He—like so many of us—has clearly internalized Herbert’s work as one of the design patterns of our genre. In particular, his use of an organization of the mystically powerful as a sort of éminence grise in the sweeping historical narrative has a rather sandy flavor for me.
But the name of Walter Koenig’s character is a pointer to a more explicit antecedent. Calling him Alfred Bester (and using a cantrip to block telepathy1) is the closest Straczynski can come to assigning The Demolished Man as background reading. I’d read it years ago. But after this episode, where all of the previous strands of narrative about PsiCorps are given depth and context, I figured it was time for a re-read.
Even more than Babylon 5 itself, The Demolished Man is a future of the past. I don’t just mean the casual sexism (“Let’s find a girl and vote her the Monarch Jumper Girl. When a consumer buys one, he’s buying the girl. When he handles one, he’s handling her.”) What really struck me was the pre-Watergate attitude toward institutions and how they work. Consider:
- The Peepers are a voluntary organization. They have an office where latents are given a chance to identify themselves and join, but no one is constrained to do so. Latents who choose not to come in (for instance, Chooka Frood) are not controlled or hounded in any way; they’re merely left untrained.
- The penalty for violating Peeper rules is expulsion and shunning, but nothing more. Jerry Church suffers this; he’s desperately lonely, but he’s not dead or imprisoned.
- Peepers are only allowed to marry each other, in order to breed stronger telepaths. One of the main subplots of The Demolished Man is that Powell hasn’t found a Peeper woman he’s willing to marry. The penalty? Occasional comments at parties.
We’ve been given glimpses of how monstrous PsiCorps is before: when Jason Ironheart tried to leave it; when Ari Ben Zayn expected Harriman Gray to be corruptible because he was a member; when Alisa Beldon considered joining it; and when Matt Stoner appeared to have escaped its grip. Both Susan Ivanova’s and Talia Winters’ backstories have given us a look at how its influence distorts the lives of anyone who comes in contact with it.
But those were just traces. This episode pulls these threads together to give us—and Talia—a fuller picture, so we know what we’re dealing with in the story to come. To do that, the episode systematically violates each of the key points of Bester’s Peeper society.
PsiCorps is not a voluntary organization. The law is that every telepath has to register with them. We already know that people with telepathic abilities are given a choice: join the Corps or take a mind-deadening drug for the rest of their lives.
We discover in this episode that there’s a third choice: there are relocation camps (said to be “no better than concentration camps”) where people who will neither join the Corps nor take the drugs are sent.2
Nor does PsiCorps leave the people who choose not to join alone, not really. Not if they’re being awkward.
He took the sleepers. They shut off his talent, but didn’t stop him from speaking out against the Corps. He wrote the Senate, the media…got interviewed by ISN. Until one day when they came to give him his injection. He closed his eyes, and never woke up.
Leaving the Corps—or disobeying it—entails more than ostracism. We saw what happened to Ironheart when he tried to escape, but more ordinary telepaths can’t get out either. The underground railroad that is the focus of this episode shuttles both undiscovered latents and former members to places the Corps can’t reach.
And Bester will lie, manipulate, and kill to stop it.
The Corps doesn’t wait for telepaths to fall in love. We knew already that Talia Winters was paired off with Matt Stoner, and that that marriage was a disaster. What we find out now is that she was lucky.
My talent woke up when I hit puberty. The Corps took me in. Said I was a P11: as high you can go before they turn you into a PsiCop. After two years, they picked another P11 and said I had to marry him. They wanted to increase the odds of breeding a P12 or higher. I refused.
One night, I woke up. Heard voices. Something soft over my face. Felt hands lifting me out of bed. The next morning they tried to tell me it was all just a dream. Four weeks later I discovered I was pregnant. When she was born, they took her from me. As soon as I could walk I escaped from the hospital. I never saw my baby again.
Bester’s character is also a far cry from The Demolished Man‘s Lincoln Powell. He’s a well-portrayed monster (Koenig does a fantastic job, and he’s given very good material to work with.) When he kills the telepath at the beginning of the episode, there’s a hint of real pleasure in it for him. And he’s adept at turning every occasion into another lever to use on the people around him.
Sheridan: What about Talia?
Bester: As far as I know, she got out.
Sheridan: You mean you haven’t heard from her since the attack?
Bester: No, but I’m sure she’s fine. It’s me they were after.
Garibaldi: Unless they took her only to get to you. Has that ever occurred to you now that you’ve managed to save your own skin?
Bester: It won’t do them any good. She doesn’t know anything that could hurt me or the Corps.4
Garibaldi: Doesn’t get it, does he? Hey! wake up! It doesn’t matter what she does and doesn’t know! She could be dead right now!
Garibaldi: You should have told us she was missing as soon as you called in.
Bester: If you’re this worried, Mr Garibaldi, I suggest you double your efforts to find these people. You’ve got two bodies to start with. Make the best of them.
Bester is remniscent of those concentration camp guards who had lovely family lives outside of working hours. And again, this is an impression we’re led to by the scriptwriting. Tellingly, just before the narrative of the woman forced to have, then lose, her baby, Bester gives Garibaldi this touching little family scene.
Would it interest you to know that I’m married, Mr Garibaldi? That I have a five year old daughter. That on Sundays when I’m back home we pack a picnic lunch and go out under the dome on Syria Plena and watch the stars come out? Hardly the description of a monster.
Nothing and no one in The Demolished Man comes close to PsiCorps and Bester.
In among these dark visions of a significant institution, we do also learn a lot of details that are relevant to the story to come. Ironheart gave Talia more than just telekinesis, and Bester can’t read her. Talia turns to Ivanova when she’s troubled, and Ivanova is glad to see her. And Delenn and Sheridan…well, that dinner was clearly the start of something.
And Ivanova gets a good line, the first she’s had in a while:
Bester: They must be getting desperate, to try something like this. They know we’re onto them. Why else would they try to kill me?
Ivanova: Is this a multiple-choice question?
But what’s important in this episode, more than anything else, is the clear and unsettling portrait of PsiCorps. Regarding that, let me close with three relevant quotes: two for contrast, one for parallax.
Ellery West: We’re born in the Guild. We live with the Guild. We die in the Guild. We have the right to elect Guild officers, and that’s all. The Guild runs our professional lives. It trains us, grades us, sets ethical standards, and sees that we stick to them. It protects us by protecting the layman, the same as medical associations. We have the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. It’s called the Esper Pledge. God help any of us if we break it…
Alfred Bester: This is unnecessary, you know. If you just give us the information we need, we could stop this. We don’t blame you. You fell under the influence of outsiders. They used you and abandoned you. You mean nothing to them. You were raised by the Corps. Clothed by the Corps. We are your father and your mother. Don’t force us to do this.
Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: We have two chief survivors of those ancient schools: the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. The Guild, so we think, emphasizes almost pure mathematics. The Bene Gesserit serves another purpose.
Paul Atreides: Politics.
- Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor!
Tenser, said the Tensor!
And dissention have begun!
- This information is, tellingly, conveyed by someone who looks Native American.3
- While the African-American character runs the underground railroad.
- A nice blind spot, that ego of his. He never conceives that Talia could be a threat, not because of what she can tell them, but because of what they can tell her—and what she can do about it. He doesn’t make many mistakes, but this one is significant.
The next writeup will discuss The Coming of Shadows