|Mass market paperback, 483 pages|
Acquired September 2012
Read January 2019
by David A. McIntee
Stardate 60074.2-60214.1 (early 2383)
This is the first novel branded "The Next Generation" that I've reached in my marathon, but though it might be so de jure it has much less claim to that label de facto than several other novels I've read that don't have "The Next Generation" printed on the title page. Events begin on the Enterprise-E with the whole Destiny-era gang-- Picard, Worf, Choudhury, La Forge-- but soon La Forge has joined the crew of the USS Challenger on detachment.
Instead of being a TNG installment, the book feels like the pilot for a slightly retooled S.C.E./Corps of Engineers series (with the exception of how it ties up; I'll get to that later). Scotty, still heading the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, captains the USS Challenger, a Galaxy-class testbed for experimental technologies. The ship is crewed by a bevy of familiar engineers from across Star Trek: in addition to Scotty and La Forge, Reg Barclay and Dr. Leah Brahms are the major ones, plus Nog is chief of security. On top of that, you have some familiar guest characters like Berlinghoff Rasmussen and Guinan, and some new characters, including the Challenger's delightful chief engineer and a very enthusiastic Klingon woman pilot. It reminds one of set-ups for new ongoing series like New Frontier or Titan. It's the kind of thing that could be overly fannish, but McIntee keeps it on the successful side. We would never ever see Barclay, Nog, and Brahms work together on screen, but this is what tie-in fiction is for.
The main plot of the novel begins with the Challenger investigating the mysterious reappearance of the NX-07 Intrepid, fresh out of the era of Enterprise, but with a dead crew far from its last known position. This part has a pleasing technical mystery to it: of course, a lot of it is bafflegab, but as in some Golden Age sf, it's fun to watch a team of highly competent professionals do their thing. Berlinghoff Rasmussen, as a native of the 22nd century himself, is brought on as a consultant, but soon things are disrupted by an it's-so-crazy-it-just-might-work plan from an old villain, and La Forge and Barclay have to save the day while prisoners. It's good, if generic Star Trek fun. Like I said, this is what tie-in fiction is for. Then, as the Challenger investigates the phenomenon that caused the displacement of Intrepid, things get bigger and crazier, and unfortunately, somewhat rushed. There are a lot of cool concepts in the second half of the novel, but I often felt like the characters were rocketing through them. (Though what happens to Scotty, plus his memorial service, are quite nice.)
Characters rocketing through things is actually the big fault of the novel. La Forge goes through a whole lot here, and it's curiously understated; we get very little sense of how La Forge feels about this all, what's at stake for him personally and emotionally. La Forge becomes captain of the Challenger halfway through, in a nice piece of continuity with Voyager's "Timeless," but surprisingly there's no coherent subplot about him adjusting to command or what captaincy means to him or how he has to act differently than he was. Similarly, he gets together with Leah Brahms, but I'm not really sure why: it's like they see each other again, and huzzah, they're back together.
What comes after the climax is disappointing. Indistinguishable from Magic is not the pilot for a new S.C.E. spin-off, because the book ends with the destruction of the Challenger and the return of La Forge to his old post on the Enterprise. It's a little annoying, because it seals that the events of this novel don't actually matter to La Forge. He gets two months of captaincy, and then he's back to doing the same thing he's been doing for the past eighteen years. Sure, he's "captain of engineering" now, but he doesn't really seem happy or sad or anything to lose a ship so quickly. The end kind of confirms all these characters will get rolled back to where they were; Barclay will go to the Voyager fleet again, and I'm very willing to predict Nog will be back on Deep Space 9 (if we ever get to see the station again, that is).
I kind of liked this book, but in the end, it just feels hollow.
- Among the Challenger crew is Alyssa Ogawa, last seen as head nurse on Titan, now a doctor and chief medical officer on the Challenger... just two months after Fallen Gods! That novel, despite being written later, did nothing to set this up. Indistinguishable from Magic tries to paper over how a nurse becomes a doctor in literally moments, but I didn't buy it, and she pretty much could be any doctor character, so I'm not sure why McIntee bothered. Also the Challenger crew spends a lot of time being amazed at gigantic space life-forms, but Ogawa never mentions the time Titan spent exploring the ecosystem of gigantic space life-forms.
- On the other hand, Nog gets a good couple scenes; I really enjoyed it when he flushes information out of a Ferengi underling by implying Grand Nagus Rom (his father) bought the Challenger from Starfleet. But like Ogawa's, Nog's presence doesn't quite line up. Not for timeline reasons (I don't think we've seen Nog for six years, in universe, though Memory Beta tells me he was mentioned as being on DS9 in Rough Beasts of Empire), but career ones. He's obviously there as part of the novel's engineering all-star team set-up, but he's the Challenger's chief of security because that was the only position available. Okay, I buy that, because Nog was interim chief of security on DS9 between Odo and Ro. However, later in the novel, La Forge considers Nog for first officer, but then passes him up so he's not denied the opportunity to be a chief engineer one day, because he'll be a great one. But Nog already was a chief engineer! If that's what he wanted, he could have just stayed on DS9.
- I spent a lot of time wondering why Leah was willing to romance La Forge, given that she's married. It turns out that her husband died in The Genesis Wave novels. But if McIntee mentioned this fact for those of us who remember "Galaxy's Child" but do not remember The Genesis Wave, I did not notice, so I was very disconcerted until I read her Memory Beta entry halfway through.
- You can't expect every thing to reference every thing, but it also jarred me that, when discussing if the Challenger can breach the galactic barrier, no one mentions the attempt of the Enterprise-E to do so in The Q Continuum trilogy.
- Sonya Gomez puts in a couple brief appearances, which is nice given this book's pseudo-S.C.E. status. I don't think any other member of the da Vinci crew rates a mention, though; Mor glasch Tev is seen, but La Forge doesn't know his name, so he's just "a Tellarite."
- Scotty may seem to be dead by the end, but we know from Engines of Destiny that he's still around in 2422, so he must get back somehow. Plus, he needs to invent transwarp beaming and give Spock the equations prior to 2387. Maybe his experience here is how he figures it out...?
- In the acknowledgements, McIntee praises the cover artist. I can't imagine why, because it is the most generic uninspired thing I can imagine. A Galaxy-class ship with some motion blur, and a swirl. The book has much more interesting imagery that could have made a much better cover.
- McIntee has a weird tendency to let dialogue scenes go on too long. Like, characters keep talking two or three or four lines after the point which the reader has gotten the point, either to just restate something yet again, or to squeeze in an ultimately irrelevant continuity reference.
- According to the novel The Return, the captain of the Challenger in 2371 was a Vulcan named Simm. By the time of Indistinguishable from Magic, the first officer of the Challenger is Tyler Hunt, a man obviously named after the characters Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt from Life on Mars. The actor who played Sam Tyler: John Simm. Spooky.
- There's a joke about how quitting Starfleet was the biggest mistake Scotty ever made aside from bleaching his hair, a reference to how he appeared in early issues of the Gold Key comics. I actually suggested this joke to Dave McIntee, but by the time I read the book, I had forgotten all about that discussion, so I was pretty delighted to discover it.