The first published novel set in the Babylon 5 universe, Voices benefits from a fast pace and an intriguing central storyline. However, problems with continuity and characterization - as well as one big hole in the story's logic - keep this book from being anything more than a minor diversion at best.
Mars is the site for a Psi Corps convention that is to be a meeting between the military and commercial arms of the Corps. At least, that was the plan - until an explosion claims the lives of 26 civilians at the very hotel where the convention was to be held. Top Psi Cop Alfred Bester asks his temporary assistant, one Harriman Gray, where the conference should be moved. Gray's suggestion? Babylon 5.
Captain Sheridan is actually quite happy at the suggestion, feeling that a major conference such as this could do much to boost the station's visibility and legitimacy in the public eye. Steamrolling over the objections of Garibaldi and Ivanova, Sheridan readily agrees, assigning Garibaldi to coordinate the security with Talia Winters.
Garibaldi's arrangements are very thorough, even meeting with Bester's approval. Despite the heightened security, however, something goes wrong. A bomb disrupts a meeting between Bester, the military, and an arm of the commercial telepaths known as "The Mix." Evidence proves that the bombing was an inside job. The bomb was smuggled into the conference, disguised as a data crystal. And the person who did the smuggling was none other than Talia.
With Bester and his Psi Cops determined to summarily execute her as a rogue, Talia goes on the run - taking a transport back to Earth in the company of Deuce, Babylon 5's resident underworld king, and the very man who orchestrated the bombing. As Talia finds herself forced to rely on Deuce to make good her escape, Garibaldi is sent to track her down.
Garibaldi is determined to prove Talia's innocence. But he isn't pleased when his mission is made subject to taking along a partner: Psi Corps member Harriman Gray.
The central storyline that forms the spine of Voices is actually quite an intriguing one. The idea of a coup within Psi Corps has great potential, and is made even more interesting by the decision to make the aggressors the commercial side of the Corps. Even better, the villain of the piece (who is, alas, ridiculously easy to spot) has a legitimate point of view, one with which Garibaldi freely admits he would agree if it were not being paid for with the blood of innocents.
Furthermore, the basic story is generally well-developed and moves at a nice pace. The details fall into place and utilize the settings of Babylon 5, Mars, and Earth in ways that fit very well with the series' environment (minus some technical gaffes about Martian temperatures - it looks like writer John Vornholt's Mars is a much hotter place than we'd have thought!)
The writer's strength with plot and pacing is fortunate, because the plot frequently has to carry the book. Vornholt struggles to find the voices of several characters, and sometimes trips a bit over the series' continuity, as I'll observe later in this review. Still, he does write fairly well for a few characters - chief among them Garibaldi, who is effectively one of the book's lead characters.
From Garibaldi's first scene, the book does a strong job at keeping him in-character. By noting Garibaldi's mingled surprise and relief that Sheridan actually wanted him to stay on as security chief, Vornholt addresses an aspect of Garibaldi's character that the series too often overlooked in Season Two: namely, that he was a man on his last chance at Babylon 5 - a chance he only had because of his friendship with Sinclair. It fits that Garibaldi should be surprised and (now that he's recovered from his aide's betrayal) pleased to have been kept on in his post. It also fits that he should find his position a bit more precarious than before. Sheridan is not his friend, after all, at least, not yet. It seems appropriate that an occasional word, sharp tone, or gesture should remind the security chief of that fact.
Vornholt also writes fairly successfully for Bester. That he captures much of Bester's complexity is actually rather impressive, given that he had exactly one television appearance on which to base his portrayal. Bester's formidable determination comes across strongly in the opening chapter, when he exerts heroic efforts to save himself and Gray from the initial terrorist bombing. His scenes with Talia are some of the best in the book. His razor-sharp powers of perception, even divorced from his Psi abilities, make for my favorite scene: a fairly quiet moment in Chapter 9 where he reasons for Talia where each person coming to a conference will sit, and why (he ends up being wrong on only one count). Most of all, Bester manages to manipulate the situation successfully enough that - even though he is forced to capitulate to demands to clear Talia's name - Bester wins as well, and expands his already frightening power base in doing so.
However, Vornholt does miss several of Bester's defining characteristics. Bester's single most significant driving force is his unswerving loyalty to his people - his people being not just Psi Corps, but the telepath population as a whole. The unnecessary slaughter of rogues - which Vornholt indicates as the Psi Cops' modus operandi - simply doesn't line up with Bester's character. Bester will kill a rogue if there's no other way to bring that rogue in, certainly; and Bester will sacrifice even his most loyal people if it will serve his larger purposes. But Bester will not kill a telepath - any telepath - if he could just as easily bring that person in alive. Vornholt bungles this aspect of Bester's characterization. In fairness, he is writing based only on the character's first, most one-dimensional, appearance (the show didn't truly write Bester in three dimensions until about Season Three).
Other characters are handled far worse than Bester. Given that this book's first draft was written before Bruce Boxleitner had ever appeared in the role, it is not surprising that Vornholt's Sheridan misses the mark. This book's Sheridan is very crisp and military, with none of the warmth or openness of the televised version. Meanwhile, Londo and G'Kar are trapped in their more simplistic first season personas, with their more interesting character aspects virtually ignored. Given that they are peripheral to the story, it is not a major problem; but it is an annoyance in a book that already has too many annoyances interfering with its story.
As I noted in the introduction to this review, there is one huge logic gaffe in the plot. Talia is on the run because Psi Corps believes she is a rogue. She is not actually guilty, however, and Mind War showed very clearly that Bester (and presumably, any other Psi Cop) has full clearance to do a painfully deep scan on Talia to verify that fact. In short, there is no reason for Talia to have to go on the run. As Bester himself would say to the dilemma of identifying someone wrongfully accused: "I'm a telepath. Work it out." The only reason why nobody in the book thinks of this, presumably, is that there would be no story if Talia didn't have to run... which makes it a supreme example of idiot plotting.
There are also several parts of the book that simply do not line up very well with the continuity of the series. For instance, it is implied several times that human telepaths cannot read the minds of the station's alien population... even though The Gathering and Legacies both showed human telepaths looking into alien minds (in The Gathering, Lyta read Kosh's mind - and minds don't get much more alien than that)! The novel also establishes family ties for Talia, a family that she seems to know reasonably well. This completely contradicts the series, which established way back in Midnight on the Firing Line that Talia was raised by Psi-Corps. Her family should be a group of strangers to her; there certainly should not be a Quixotic uncle to be used by Bester as a human poker chip.
Lastly, though the actual story has potential, John Vornholt's writing is erratic. There are individual scenes and chapters that read fairly well, but sometimes his writing deteriorates to the quality of a weak first draft, while other bits of writing simply repeat themselves (Talia notes to herself that Deuce has probably been scanned before, and would notice if she were to scan him; one chapter later, she notes this again, in exactly the same words).
Take this paragraph from early in Chapter Two, in which Talia muses about the deaths of 27 people on Mars. This paragraph is completely in context, with no sentences removed or rearranged:
Talia Winters looked away, wondering if the problems on Mars would ever end.
She had an appointment, so she couldn't dwell on her own little problems. With a
sigh, she continued her stroll down the main corridor.
"The bird liked to fly. It was yellow. It got eaten by a dog." One sentence doesn't even lead to the next. Little things like transitions between one idea and the next are taught in any self-respecting junior high or high school English class. To see such basic building blocks of the written word so frequently absent in a published novel is inexcusable.
As the very first Babylon 5 book, I suspect this was rushed into publication with little time for revision. A pity - the potential exists here for quite a good book. But it's crying out for some tightening and reworking, if only in characterization and basic writing.