Book Review: The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway by Una McCormack

I was very excited to read The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway by Una McCormack. And also very prepared. Voyager is “my Trek” and Kathryn Janeway is in every way “my captain”. I’d read the earlier rendition of Janeway’s pre-Voyager years, Mosaic— in fact, the discussion of that book was my first appearance on Women At Warp. I’d also read the two earlier “autobiographies” of Starfleet Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard, both by David A. Goodman. I enjoyed all three of these books, and I had critiques of all three of these books. I expected the same from the latest entry, and those expectations were met. But my expectations were also exceeded, particularly in one specific area.

Published in 1996 and written by series co-creator Jeri Taylor, Mosaic had a veneer of canon cachet beyond the standard tie-in novel. I was thrilled to read about a Janeway closer to my age, who didn’t yet have it all together and how she became the one we knew. But as much as I liked it, there was one glaring issue. Every important relationship in her life was with a man. Her father. Her mentor, Owen Paris. Her three boyfriends, all of which were terrible in one way or another. And Tuvok. There were also two cameos from The Next Generation: as a child, she met Data and she went on a date with Will Riker at the Academy. Now, I love the idea that Janeway could have dated Riker. But where are the women?

Well, I am very pleased to report that “Women! Women everywhere!” is at least half of the notes I took reading Janeway’s Autobiography. Every chance McCormack had to add a woman, she did. Teachers, mentors, friends, coworkers. Kathryn’s very first mentor in middle school? A Black girl a few years older. Ethics teacher at the Academy? An Indian woman with the rank of Admiral who she then reached out to throughout her career. McCormack gave Janeway’s sister, Phoebe, a Trill wife and four daughters. She gave her mother, Gretchen, a high profile career as a children’s book author and a calling as an activist. And she built up their family to include both sets of grandparents in Kathryn’s life on Earth.

The men weren’t removed. Growing up, Janeway is still closest to her father. Owen Paris is still the first Captain she works and learns under. She still befriends Tom Paris when he’s a child, and she meets Tuvok much earlier in this version of her backstory. She still has a self-centered first boyfriend and she still plans a future with fiancé Mark. McCormack just made Janeway’s circles wider and more inclusive.

In addition to this bounty, the book pulls on a lot of the threads I’m most interested in. Every interaction with Tom Paris reads like the fanfiction I read and wrote and loved during the series run. I relate to Kathryn losing her famous father as a young adult and this passage in particular resonates strongly:

To have to listen to people tell you, over and over again, how brave he was, how well respected, how many people he had served with and supported and encouraged…Trying to find a “thank you” to everyone who took the time to come and speak with us…God, it was hellish.

The loss is followed by a time of deep mourning that allows for self-reflection as she goes through the stages of grief. It was soothing to read, even twenty years after the death of my own father. And as she rises through the ranks, Janeway has to deal with a dismissive, and at times hostile, superior, and with the difficulties of balancing her career and ambition with her love life and desires for stability and a family.

The bulk of the book takes place prior to Voyager. I found the chapters that take place within the canon of the show less engaging. I think they’d work better for someone who’d never seen the series, though I’m not sure why that person would be reading it. I did, however, like how her mother’s work with Bajoran refugees tied in to the captain’s decision to prioritize the fate of the Ocampa over everyone on the ship, that meeting Amelia Earhart paid off her childhood obsession, and how often her Academy class in Ethics came up. I also loved how McCormack framed Kathryn’s relationship with Kes and how Janeway observed Harry Kim’s arc. And it was, again, wonderful to see Janeway mentoring B’Elanna, Seven, and Naomi Wildman as an extension of her own experiences with women mentors. The last chapter is a little wrap up for the crew that includes a lot of fanservice, but as a fan, I don’t mind.

In 1997 this photo of the Voyager crew was available as a poster and bookmark in the library. It is my favorite promotional photo in the history of Star Trek. I love the thought that went into matching books to character (when I presented this on a panel for Voyager’s 20th anniversary, I gave Seven of Nine Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.) In the Autobiography, McCormack includes references to Dorothy Gale and The Wizard of Oz to the point of overusing the analogy, but I still found it so charming. Nor is it the only book she mentions. One could, and should!, create a reading list of the many books that influenced Kathryn Janeway.

I love to read biographies and especially memoirs, I have since I was a child. It’s comforting to find myself in the story of someone else’s life. While this is, of course, fiction and indeed, space fantasy, it pushes all the same buttons.

The Autobiography of Katyhryn Janeway will be published by Titan Books on October 27, 2020 with an MSRP of $24.99 US for the hardback edition or $9.99 US for the ebook. It is available online, or at your local retailer.

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