Monday, 12 September 2011

Trek Review: Indistinguishable from Magic by David A. McIntee

David McIntee is best known for his Doctor Who novels, which include such excellent works as Sanctuary, Bullet Time, The Face of the Enemy and The Eleventh Tiger (and those are just his best ones). This year, after a couple of short stories, he finally got the chance to write a Star Trek novel. I don’t follow the Trek line regularly, preferring to pick up the occasional book that takes my fancy. To be honest, the description of Indistinguishable from Magic didn’t fill me with excitement - a Geordi focussed novel about starship engineering didn’t sound particularly thrilling to me. However, as a big fan of McIntee’s work, I sought it out, and was justly rewarded. Indistinguishable from Magic is a cracker of a Trek book.

Traditionally, readers can split Trek novels one of two ways. They can be divided into those that explore the untold mysteries of the universe, or those that are content to act on nostalgia, bringing in classic characters and locations; Indistinguishable from Magic manages to do both. The alternative is to split them into the drudgingly dull, and those that have a bit more fun with the Trek universe; thankfully, IFM is firmly in the latter camp. I would never have expected to enjoy a novel about Geordi’s rise to command as much as this; personally, I’ve always found him a bit of a boring character. McIntee writes him perfectly though, giving him humour and depth, and, most importantly, making him feel like a genuine bloke. The other lead character is Scotty, and it’s a pleasure to read him as written by a genuine Scot! Scotty’s always good value, and it’s clear that McIntee enjoys writing for him. He also doesn’t hold back from including a host of recognisable characters, mostly linked to the engineering department. Leah Brahms is there as Geordi’s love interest, Nog gets transferred to security, Guinan is on hand for moral support and everyone’s favourite, Reg Barclay, is along for the ride too. Plus Berlinghoff Rasmussen, and a surprise villain or two who’ll be familiar to TNG viewers.

The pitch was apparently for two linked novels, which was then reworked into one, something that is clear from the book’s structure and unusual length. The first part sees Geordi join the engineers’ specialist starship the USS Challenger, who Voyager viewers may remember he is one day destined to captain. Challenger is one the hunt for the lost starship Intrepid, a 22nd Century contemporary of Archer’s Enterprise, presumed destroyed but in fact swept across the Galaxy by means unknown. With time traveller Rasmussen along for 22nd Century expertise, a bunch of space pirates, an unforeseen alien presence and a time-rending spatial anomaly, things don’t go quite to plan. The second part, somewhat shorter but a little slower paced, sees Challenger on the trail of the universe-hopping alien force that hammered the Intrepid two centuries earlier, and drags it across the universe to parts unknown - bringing some nosy Romulans along for the ride. In spite of the engineer-speak, the technobabble is kept to a minimum (with ‘anomaly’ rightly outlawed in favour of ‘thingy’), events are generally kept pacy and fun and the human angle always takes precedence to scientific discoveries.

McIntee has always liked sneaking references into his books, and I’m sure I missed most of them here. I did, however, love Challenger’s first officer, blatantly played by John Simm and cheekily named Tyler Hunt! As for the time-spanning space phenomenon being named the ‘Split Infinite’ - well, if you don’t get that joke you shouldn’t be reading a Trek novel. What makes Indistinguishable from Magic such a success is that McIntee doesn’t forget to make his excursion into the Trek universe fun; a Lovecraftian horror with a Cockney accent as chief engineer, for example, plus prodigious use of British swear words, which seem to slip under the US publishing radar. This sense of fun is something that too many authors in the range are guilty of. This is truly enjoyable Trek.

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