Transcendental Tales

Review: Transcendental Tales, James Gunn 2017 – 2018.

I did not know until I read Michael W. Page’s Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher, and Scholar (which I’ll be reviewing two posts down the line) that James Gunn has a law named after him. Gunn’s Law says “Sell it twice”.

Now, I have certainly encountered “fix-ups” before, novels stitched together from shorter works first published in magazines. Most of Gunn’s novels were constructed that way. And I’ve certainly seen novel excerpts published in science fiction magazines.

However, this is something I haven’t seen before: a series of short stories based on chapters from a novel.

Most of these stories are variations of chapters in Gunn’s Transcendental. As Gunn stated in his essay on the Transcendental Trilogy and how it came to be, “Thought Experiment: Space Opera and the Quest for Transcendence” in the January/February 2018 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, he expanded the individual human and alien pilgrims into more “traditional narratives”. Oddly enough, the fullest explanation of when the Transcendental Tales stories are set, about a 1,000 years in the future, is in the issue with their second to last appearance.

I read a couple of these after finishing Transgalactic and the rest after finishing Transformation.

I’m not going to cover these tales in a lot of detail. I’m not particularly interested in textual variant criticism. Author and theme studies are more my thing.

Nor am I going to address the merits of each tale as individual works.

I will say that, divorced from their original context in Transcendental, these stories do help you appreciate the inventiveness Gunn showed on the individual pilgrim tales. When reading the book, one might feel a bit of impatience as one wants to get through each individual story to get back to the main story of the pilgrimage to find the Transcendence Machine and the intrigues and dangers of that journey.

I don’t know how they would appear to someone unfamiliar with that novel. I would think they were interesting but unsatisfying because, of course, they leave in the air the fate of each pilgrim and don’t answer the question whether they will find transcendence. Some would have led me to seek out the novel. Others wouldn’t.

There are some new background and character bits that are of interest for those who have read Transcendental and my reviews will be from that perspective.

All the chapters I mention are from that novel.

AshaThe Escape of the Adastra: Asha’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2017) is a fairly significant modification of the “Asha’s Story” chapter. The beginning three paragraphs seem to be new. The first paragaph talks about the pursuit of the Adastra after it escapes Federation Central. The second paragraph talks about the launch of the Adastra, the first human starship to leave Earth’s solar system. Asha’s father was born on the ship, and he mentions being taken to a room of Earth relics that the original crew frequently visited in their homesickness. The second generation only visited when forced to by their parents. The third – Asha’s generation – forgot them. The third paragraph expands the depiction of the voyage and alters and expands the opening of “Asha’s Story”. We get more detail of the building and inhabiting of Federation Central. The account of the relationship between Asha and Ren is expanded with added dialogue both on the ship and during their escape. Significantly, Asha, in “Asha’s Story ”, says

“Ren was in love with me, and I thought I was in love with him, although it may have been only sympathy for his plight and admiration for his dedication”.

This story has Asha wondering if she loves him or if she just likes his resolve and wonders if she can make Ren love her. The two stories differ markedly in their conclusion. This one gives details on their escape, their attempts to get a message back to Earth about the Galactic Federation’s plans to wage war on Earth and Ren contemplating that war is inevitable but, maybe with the death and destruction ended by a truce, there may be rewards. It ends with Ren noting that not knowing what will happen to them is exciting. “Asha’s Story” ends with the account of the Adastra landing on the planet of the spiders, battling them, and Asha entering the Transcendental Machine and becoming the Prophet. Continue reading “Transcendental Tales”


Essay: Transformation, James Gunn, 2017.

Covery by Thom Tenery

Well, that was anticlimactic.

That was my first reaction to finishing up Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy.

The second volume, Transgalactic, had a plot, according to Gunn, structured on The Odyssey, this one is structured along the lines of Jason and the Argonauts’ tale. Our questers are the two main characters of the trilogy,  Asha and Riley, and Tordor who didn’t, in fact, die at the end of Transcendental. Joining them is Adithya, son of Latha, leader of the covert rebellion against Earth’s pedia in Transgalactic.

They want to know what menace, revealed in the preceding book, is making the sentient races of the Galactic Federation go silent on the fringes of the galaxy.

A subplot also has Jer, cloned descendant of mad scientist Jak whom we met in Transgalactic, attempting to convince the staid Federation Council that the modified Transcendental Machine (named, what else?, the Jak Machine) poses no danger and works. These sections are sometimes humorous.  She also suggests that, to fight the destroyer of the “silent worlds” (whose nature she doesn’t know), the Galactics will need to be Transcended.

The trilogy concludes with the line “’It’s a long story,’ Asha said.” Continue reading “Transformation”

Gift From the Stars

Last summer, while I was waiting to get my hands on James Gunn’s latest novel, Transformation, I decided to fill in one of my few gaps in reading his fiction, so I took this one off the shelf.

It turns out it has some unexpected similarities to Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy and interesting on its own.

Review: Gift From the Stars, James Gunn, 2005.Gift from the Stars

As explained in Gunn’s preface as well as the introduction by Gregory Benford, this novel is part of a feedback loop with SETI research as well as Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Sagan was a great admirer of Gunn’s The Listeners, a set of novelletes turned into a novel which depicts the decades long quest for a signal from an alien intelligence and the effects of receiving one on humanity. Gunn took his ideas from SETI researcher Frank Drake as well as Sagan, and Benford says Gunn’s novel, in turn, influenced the paradigms of SETI efforts.

Sagan’s Contact was a response to Gunn’s novel, and Gunn started this novel, another one of his characteristic fix-ups of several shorter works, in response to the movie adaptation of Sagan’s novel. Specifically, Gunn didn’t find the end alien message or its purpose credible.

The result is an upping of scale from section to section. Benford says it puts him in mind of A. E. van Vogt’s famous method of writing 800 word scenes and then introducing a new wrinkle into the narrative. While that led, according to Benford, “gathering incoherence” in van Vogt, it leads to “expanding vistas” in this novel. Continue reading “Gift From the Stars”


Essay: Transgalactic, James Gunn, 2016.

Cover by Thom Tenery

”That sounds like some ancient space romance. … Full of incredible adventures and near-death escapes.”

So says mad scientist Jak, making an on-stage appearance here after being mentioned in the first novel, Transcendental, of the Transcendental trilogy.

Whereas that novel was full of interrogative statements and a density of question marks unparalleled in my reading (except, maybe, in my dim memories of Plato’s The Republic), its follow up is full of confident declarations, declarations that echo other works of Gunn and of Gunn’s friends Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl.

And it is full of adventure, romance, and near-death escapes.

Gunn has, to my knowledge, the longest career of any living English language science fiction author – 69 years though that is still less than Williamson’s 83 year-long career. Continue reading “Transgalactic”

The Godwhale

While I work on a new series of posts about James Gunn, you get this one.

Raw Feed (1998): The Godwhale, T. J. Bass, 1974.

Cover by Darrel K. Sweet

This book is allegedly, according to its back blurb, a sequel to the earlier written Half Past Human.

In the dense prose, I really couldn’t get any clues as to internal chronology. As I recall, the oceans in Half Past Human were lifeless, and the Procyon Implant reseeds them in this novel.

There is also a reference to Dan, a dog with golden teeth, which could refer to the dog of Half Past Human. His leptoscul records (the least scientifically convincing aspect of the book) are said to be ancient.

On the other hand, the buckeyes of Half Past Human are hardly mentioned.

The plots of both books are roughly the same.

Outsiders (here the Benthic dwellers who have adapted to living by and below the sea via knowledge and leftover technology – presumably from the days the Hive tried to settle in the seas – alluded to in the earlier novel) fight the Hive with the help of rebels and castoffs from ES.

As in the earlier novel, an old space probe, K.A.R.L., shows up at the end – though as a derelict and not to save the day – the oceans are seeded early on.  Continue reading “The Godwhale”

Half Past Human, or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

There hasn’t been a lot of posting on this blog lately.

It’s not that I’ve been idle. I’m working on a new series of which over half is written, but I won’t post it until all the individual posts are written.

In the meantime, since bloggers MPorcius and Joachim Boaz were talking on Twitter about T. J. Bass’ science fiction novels , I thought I’d put up reviews of them.

Here’s the first. Joachim Boaz’s take is here.

Fletcher Vrendenburgh reviewed it over at Black Gate.

Raw Feed (1998): Half Past Human, T. J. Bass, 1971.

Half Past Human
Cover by Michael McInnerney

 This book belongs to a subgenre that includes Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, William F. Nolan’s and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run: the dystopic city dweller trying to flee – usually with a lover – into the country and into a better society. (George Orwell’s 1984 featured lovers finding no refuge from their urban hell. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World featured a rustic commenting on its world).

This novel’s strength is that it uses the devices and character types of all these novels. Moon is the rustic never part of the Hive, its sworn enemy. Tinker, like Logan, is an enforcer (or, at least, an enabler) of the dystopian order who finds itself on its bad side and throws his lot in with the five toed aborigines. Kaia the hunter, through a pharmacological accident, goes abo and likes it. Moses the Pipe Man also is attracted to the abo life.

Of course most novels with this plot have the loyal supporters of the status quo. Here those figures are the clever Val (who ends up an involuntary stud for five-toed genes to the “buckeyes”) and Walter, who is sympathetic to the buckeyes but feels he must do all he can as he waits for his soul to be taken by O.L.G.A. (The book is full of acronyms. This one is a spaceship.). Only Val is pretty consistently unlikeable. Continue reading “Half Past Human, or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax”

“Larger Than Oneself”

Review: “Larger Than Oneself”, Robert Aickman, 1966.Late Breakfasters

Aickman’s tales are famously obscure and this, the third of his I’ve read, is no exception.

There are certainly odd events and odd people. But plenty of stories with no fantastic element have those. That doesn’t make a story weird.

The description Aickman favored, “strange tales”, is apt — not ghost stories, not supernatural tales, not weird fiction.

And nothing supernatural or mystical may happen in this story though there is suggestion it does.

Aickman, according to a documentary I watched on him, was famously at odds with the modern. He regretted the passing of a world he just caught the tail end of with his birth in 1914: an aristocratic England of less mechanization. The latter, for instance, manifested in his involvement in reviving the disused canals, “inland waterways”, of England.

That dis-ease shows itself in the opening paragraph where we are introduced to Vincent Coner, a man who cashed out of his inherited mining operations and bought into “popular journalism with himself as editor in chief”. His publications find a market, which we’re told they wouldn’t have in any other place or time, selling “the sweet things in life . . . smeared and contaminated with envious guilt”. Continue reading ““Larger Than Oneself””


This week’s Deep Ones discussion was a story late in the career of Arthur Machen.

Review: “N”, Arthur Machen, 1936.N

This story wanders about the pubs and taverns, churches and apartments of London past and present to an indefinite conclusion. Like “The Great God Pan”, the reader is mostly expected to deduce the relevance of those events though the character Arthur does some of that work.

Despite that inconclusiveness, I liked this tale.

The story starts with three men – “the youngest of the three, a lad of fifty-five or so” – who spend their leisure hours “recalling many London vicissitudes”, a combination of nostalgia and amateur history. Their conversations cover the wax fruit they’d seen in the storefronts of the past, paintings, old stores and buildings, remembered waiters serving long ago in restaurants, and the depiction of the Iron Duke on tobacco tins.

One night, they all realize they really haven’t ventured very far into certain parts of the city, particularly North London. One, Harliss, that “lad”, mentions he grew up in Stoke Newington in North London. Continue reading ““N””

“The Mind Master”

It’s time for this week’s Deep Ones’ reading.

This week’s selection is not really, to my mind and emotions (and isn’t emotion a crucial element here?), weird.

However, when the nominations are put up, I’ll vote for anything I haven’t read before, and I voted for this one.

Review: “The Mind Master”, Arthur J. Burks, 1932.Mind Master

Lee Bentley is a pretty resilient guy.

A bit over two months ago, in the African jungles, he got mixed up with Caleb Barter, one bad, mad genius obsessed with birthing a better world. And he knows just how to do it: smart guys’ brains in ape bodies.

Bentley’s a smart guy, so Barter put his brain into a great ape.

Bentley’s no sissy. He’s a pulp hero, so he doesn’t have PTSD or nightmares. He’s not boozing it up or sobbing in his apartment after his experiences.

After a couple of months of recuperation in England, he returns to his native Manhattan with Ellen Estabrook, his fiancé. Continue reading ““The Mind Master””