Working my way through the works of James Gunn, skilled author, historian, and critic of science fiction, is one of those reading projects I may actually get done before I die. I’ve found his critical writings, especially his Road to Science Fiction series, a great guide to the genre. As a novel writer, he has produced some outstanding books too.
I bought this one when it came out, but, reading Donald M. Hassler’s informative look at it, “The Little Big Book from James Gunn: Real SF and a Huge Body of Work” in The New York Review of Science Fiction, issue #305, inspired me to read it now.
(By the way, it’s been years since I’ve looked at a copy of that magazine. I liked what I saw, but it always seemed too pricey for a subscription and too inconvenient to order single copies. Since you can now buy single digital issues quite conveniently through Weightless Books, it’s worth frequently checking out what they’re offering.)
Hassler notes that one of Gunn’s professional rules as a fiction writer is to never write something that can’t be sold twice. In this case, some of the alien pilgrims’ tales have already been printed in the Frederik Pohl tribute anthology Gateways.
Review: Transcendental by James Gunn, 2013.
After the Galactic War, pack a bunch of aliens into a dilapidated starship, all on a pilgrimage for a rumored Transcendental Machine. Add a human hero blackmailed with a lethal brain implant to go on that pilgrimage to destroy the machine and its Prophet. Throw in some shipboard assassinations, and you have the setting for Gunn’s latest novel.
While a nod is made to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, you don’t have to know those stories to like this book. The pilgrims’ tales here all reveal not only the back stories of individuals, human and alien, but the history of the many alien species and the origins of the Galactic War and why each pilgrim seeks transcendence.
Readers unfamiliar with Gunn will get a fast-paced tale that begins and ends with combat as well as lot of aliens worked out in detail.
Fans of Gunn will encounter a story with more action and intrigue than any of his other novels except, maybe, his collaboration with Jack Williamson, Star Bridge. They’ll also see another working out of his idea that contentment and stasis are deadly to a species.
It’s an enigmatic tale that critic Donald M. Hassler has suggested mixes Robert A. Heinlein and H. P. Lovecraft.
Gunn has never written a series of novels, but he has suggested he might actually do a sequel to this story. I hope he does and answers some of the many questions that came to my mind after finishing this novel.
The Canterbury Tales Connection
Unlike in his The Listeners and The Dreamers aka The Mind Master, Gunn doesn’t put any chapter epigraphs in that quote from famous works of literature.There are a few hidden allusions to T. S. Eliot and Chaucer in the opening chapters, and the pilgrimage ship is called Geoffrey.
While there is no nasty, individual play between pilgrim stories in the way that “The Reeve’s Tale” in Chaucer is a vicious response to “The Miller’s Tale”, Gunn does present, in his pilgrims’ stories, a complicated back story to the events of the novel, and some of the alien stories reveal their connection to other alien races.
Hassler rightly sees this as a novel of Darwinian struggle. That’s true, but I also see it continuing a philosophical theme in most of Gunn’s work: the dangers to a sentient species from contentment and its resulting stasis. Most powerfully, that’s the argument against happiness in Gunn’s The Joy Makers. To a lesser extent, it’s also the argument against immortality in his The Immortals.
Enigmas (with spoilers)
Stylistically, this novel is different than other Gunn novels I’ve read. (I have not read Kampus and Gift From the Stars.) There are many passages that are little more than a list of questions, of possible interpretations of events and their logical consequences. Various types of sentient life grapple with life’s mysteries and hostile forces, first in the microcosm of the Geoffrey and later in the wider universe.
Not all the alien characters survive this story. I’m not sure if we are to see the failure of some as symbolic of their species being, in some way, found wanting. And some may not be dead, only presumed to be.
Gunn does not seem to be using each alien race as symbolizing a unique reason to seek the Transcendental Machine. Some of the pilgrims’ motives are highly individual, some work for their species. They do represent several types from herd animals to paranoids to engineered human clones to ambulatory plants to the robotic descendants of their functionally extinct creators.
We only get a hint at the motives and nothing of the true identity of those employing protagonist Riley to destroy the Machine and the Prophet.
And, of course, there is the enigma of the Spiders who have left not only a faster-than-light transportation network throughout the galaxy but the alien city of the novel’s climax, abandoned, seemingly, to their viscous, scrambling, degenerate descendants. It is that alien city and element of degenerate that probably brought Lovecraft to Hassling’s mind though, as I recall, Lovecraft never used spider imagery for his cosmic terrors.
There’s a lot unresolved at the end of this novel. I hope that, if he’s willing, Gunn will pleasure us with a sequel.