I am delighted to report that I have found a way to fix everything wrong with Voyager, and it's simple. Paramount needs turn the series over to author Christie Golden. Golden has turned her talents to these characters before, in her 1996 Voyager novel The Murdered Sun - by far the best of the series novels to date. Though she did a terrific job with the characters in that effort, I didn't want to get hopeful about whether her second outing would be as enjoyable, in part because the producers have wreaked havoc with the show since Golden last wrote for it.
Yet Marooned is every bit as good as The Murdered Sun. It's a compelling action story, beginning with an abduction and a sophisticated ruse to cover it up, followed by an interstellar chase and an alien conspiracy. There's something for everyone in this novel: space battles, a technobabble-filled shuttle disaster, a mystery involving an ancient civilization, a rescue in which the rescuers wind up being saved by the endangered party. There's even a love story or two. It's a terrific tale, entertainingly told, with a good balance of science fiction, adventure, and humor.
That is not, however, what I liked best about this novel. Marooned singlehandedly restored my faith in the premise of Voyager, and reminded me of everything there is to love about its crew. I don't know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for the TV series, since the superb characterization in the book reinforces how sloppily these people have been written on the series. Golden deals with major issues which the show ignored; she demonstrates how just a few lines of dialogue could greatly improve consistency and continuity, in terms of Neelix and Kes's breakup, the slow development of fellowship between Paris and Torres, Tuvok's interest in horticulture, Chakotay's animal guide. She also brings back the Maquis crewmembers introduced in "Learning Curve," who are an integral part of this story. Golden's smart enough to keep them in the background, retaining her focus on the main crewmembers, but the presence of these missing links makes this novel a rich an interesting tapestry which ties together several seasons of Voyager and creates patterns out of what looked like random events on the series.
The tale begins with the kidnapping of Kes by Aren Yashar, a near-immortal pirate who's taken up residence on an inhospitable world protected by an artificially-generated ion storm. When the crew pursue, Janeway and most of the bridge officers are stranded following a shuttle disaster. Chakotay struggles against automated planetary defense systems that damage Voyager and hinder his attempts to contact the away team. While engineering crews work to take over patrol ships in space, the captain teams up with some friendly natives and sets off on a dual mission to rescue Kes and contact Voyager before the ship can inadvertently set off a disaster by causing the ignition of a plasma leak.
"Kidnapping" suggests that Kes is a sort of damsel in distress, but nothing could be further from the truth. She's resourceful and self-reliant, refusing to let either Janeway or Neelix speak for her even when they believe they're representing her interests. She manipulates her captor without resorting to cruelty or seduction, ultimately rescuing her would-be emancipators by covert use of the alien technology which Aren never suspects she could use against him.
The Doctor, who's by far the weakest character in this novel, paternalistically fears that she could surrender to "Stockholm Syndrome" and fall in love with her kidnapper, but Kes is a lot tougher than that. She recalls having been held prisoner before by the benevolent Caretaker, the cruel Kazon and the mind-controlling Tieran, and discovers that she's strong enough to maintain her instinctive empathy for Aren's suffering while still fighting to escape. If we'd had a Kes this multidimensional on the series, her loss would have been devastating.
Janeway, too, is very strong in this novel, taking initiatives without indulging in unnecessary personal heroics, though conveniently she is also the least-injured member of the landing party. She copes gamely when the crew encounters aliens they can't communicate with, depending on gestures to bond before she can rely on her technological wizardry. She manages to be both captain-like and accessible, a combination not mastered by the writers of the show, where she tends to be one or the other but not both at the same time.
Janeway and Chakotay make a wonderful team in Marooned - he can guess her orders by the inflection of her voice, and she's completely comfortable leaving the ship under his command as she's rarely been on the series. There isn't any suggestive intimacy between them like in Golden's previous novel, where an off-duty Janeway sat and chatted in her nightgown with her first officer, but the relationship is warm and affectionate, trusting and balanced. Golden has an eye for the visual detail of the series as well as the facts: her comments about Janeway's eye contact with Chakotay, her suppressed laughter and the way she lifts her chin when angry, sound much more accurate than do descriptions of Janeway in many Pocket novels which seem to be based purely on publicity stills.
Chakotay isn't in this novel as much as he was in The Murdered Sun - with Janeway missing, he's stuck on the bridge, dependent on the engineering teams to provide options for him. He does have one great moment of decision, when Aren threatens the life of Tom Paris and Chakotay, having determined that the alien is bluffing, tells Aren to go ahead and kill the lieutenant. Paris takes a lot of abuse in this novel - Aren calls him dull, Torres picks on him when he's tired, then he gets bitten by an alien insect, developing a horrific infection which Janeway must cut away without anesthesia.
The best thing about Paris is that he's not the superman he's become on the series, pilot and engineer and medic all in one - quite the opposite. When he's injured, Janeway must doctor his wounds, and Torres carries him over great distance. She comes across much stronger than he does, making one wish Christie Golden rather than Jeri Taylor had written the Paris/Torres romance on the series. Here, it's subtle and witty, more like a Hepburn/Tracy movie than the heavy-handed, sappy material we've seen onscreen. Golden also creates wonderful warmth between Neelix and Kes, explaining their breakup in more detail than the series bothered and having Neelix attempt unexpected heroics to rescue his former love.
The descriptive scenes are lush and vivid - there's a comparison of a shattered biosphere to a broken snow globe early on, and a colorful tour through an arboretum. The pacing isn't always even - we don't see quite enough of the ship for my tastes while the action was heavy on the planet - but Golden keeps up suspense quite well, and the ending is satisfying. There aren't any simple good guys or bad guys, and she introduces some wonderful alien species.
I'd rate this book better than any of the previous Voyager novels except Golden's own, and better than the vast majority of episodes on the series. It's a wonderful glimpse at what this show could be like.
Click here to buy this book from amazon.com.
Trek Book Reviews