In Midnight Nation, JMS gives us another sympathetic devil, one who claims he’s working for the benefit of mankind against a cruel and bored God. God created misery, to add drama to what would otherwise be boring bucolic bliss. The Devil claims he’s trying to overload the system, cause it to have a fatal collapse to force God into a better version of creation. It’s actually a believable motivation. After all, how many real world monsters turned to violence and genocide to create a “better tomorrow”?
But what makes it more than just a plausible series of lies are the tiny glimpses of regret we see. There are hints of love between him and God’s champion, Laurel. He tells her that what he misses most about Heaven was being with her. He begs her to just say no, as he did, rather than obey orders marching her down an endless path of torture and death. He bitterly observes that this is how God punishes him. By putting the two of them in conflict and forcing him to choose between obedience to an unfair Deity or hurting someone he cares about.
JMS’s extraordinary talent is creating characters which defy shallow stereotypes. His bad guys are not simply evil. They’ve made a series of choices, some of which the audience can sympathize with. His good guys are not universal heroes, they make mistakes and bad choices. They all get caught up in circumstances beyond their control, in conflicts between ideals and practicality, in selfish desires and foolish hopes. And yet, he doesn’t fall into the trap of moral ambiguity. The choices the bad guys are making are still wrong. But the internal struggle is clear, redemption is possible, no matter how “bad” the character.
In Babylon 5, there is an episode called “Summon the Inquisitor” in which one of the characters must make a choice. Hold to personal ideals, the belief that they have a destiny to fight great evil and achieve universe-changing things, or save a single life in the darkness, alone and unsung, forgotten by history. This is the same choice God is offering the Devil. He can set aside his world-quest and return to obedience, return to heaven. And all he has to do is spare the life of the champion, who he loves. Or he can continue his battle against God and accept Laurel as a necessary casualty. It’s not explicitly laid out in the story, but I think it’s a valid interpretation.
Could you sacrifice a life to change the world? Does the end justify the means? It’s a choice JMS returns to frequently in his work and he’s had characters come down on both sides of the question. We praise and honour some self-sacrifice, like someone giving up their seat on a lifeboat, or the rather obvious example of Jesus. But we abhor the self-sacrifice of suicide bombers. It’s not a simple black and white question. And that’s what makes the stories, and the characters, interesting.