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.
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.
I’ve talked about the first, “The Giftie”, before in my review of Human Voices. It introduces our hero and heroine, Adrian Mast and Frances Farmstead.
Adrian’s a would-be astronaut, would-be because his eye-hand coordination is bad. He’s settled into the life of a single man pursuing a career as a consultant in aerospace engineering. He passes the time reading, including ufology books, cynical amusements for his skeptic mind, yet he keeps hoping for “the one text the book gods had intended for him”.
So one day he finds himself in one of his usual haunts, the Book Nook owned and run by Frances. (Now that I think of it, the names are mildly symbolic: “Mast” as in ship as in voyage and travel and “Farmstead” as in farm as in stationary.) On the table, he finds a curious book: Gift from the Stars. It’s full of diagrams and pictures, but, unlike the usual ufo and ancient astronaut dreck, they are not of Mayan inscriptions and Nazca lines or pyramids. They look like modern blueprints like Adrian sees every day.
And, examining the book at home, Adrian is more and more convinced those drawings may not show a “too pat …. science-fiction gadget”. They may really show how to build an interstellar spaceship powered by antimatter – and how to produce that antimatter using solar power. Furthermore, there is the hint that this information is from an alien source.
Adrian goes back to the bookstore to talk to Frances and find more information on the book’s publisher and author.
What then follows is a something of a thriller plot as the two track down the author and publisher while evading pursuit.
It’s conducted with a surprisingly light touch since Gunn is not normally associated with humor. A lot of that comes from Frances, a character Gunn was originally going to dispense with after the novel’s first section, but he grew too fond of her. She’s spent a lot of time reading all kinds of books including spy thrillers and crime novels and constantly mentions how their circumstances resemble plot clichés and comes up with inventive (if not always successful) ways to get out of trouble and to advance their quest. Gunn may have the usual chapter epigraphs he’s fond of, but there are also plenty of references to movies and Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man”.
The first section ends with them discovering the book’s author, Peter Cavendish, now incarcerated in a mental hospital as a schizophrenic, and the government body who has been suppressing Cavendish’s discovery.
The rest of the book will have Frances and Adrian battling Earth’s bureaucracy and go from Earth to orbit around a dead world with alien ruins and discovering the purpose of that message.
Any Gunn fan will want to read this one. Since it’s only 154 pages, it’s not much of a time investment for others, particularly those interested in SETI. To my mind, it could have been shortened even more by cutting or revising “The Rabbit Hole” chapter. I’m not sure that surrealistic section where cause and effect are reversed when a starship goes through a wormhole was strictly necessary though an alien wormhole network is a crucial plot feature.
And, while the novel’s end is in good faith and a serious philosophical statement, it’s an idea I’ve come across before and dismiss as “cheap spirituality” in its attempt to find purpose in a godless universe.
Similarities to the Transcendental Machine Trilogy (with Spoilers)
For me, the novel’s interest is in unexpectedly discovering it was a thematic dress rehearsal for Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy. It’s almost as if, after this novel, he decided to cast his ideas in a more space-operaish vein, add lots of physical violence, and expand the scale from a human centered story to story involving all the galaxy’s sentient life.
(How close those correspondences were will be revealed when I review Transformation, the trilogy’s conclusion in the next post.)
Stylistically, this novel is also full of scenes with questions and multiple arguments and hypothesis put forth by characters as in the opening of the trilogy, Transcendental.
There are literary quotes in both works, though more prevalently used here. In the first two Transcendental books, they are thrown out by the Pedia, a computer, without attribution.
There are similar enabling technologies.
Both works feature a wormhole network built by aliens.
Plotwise there are similarities.
In addition to a questing narrative into the vastness of space in pursuit of alien technology and knowledge, there are manipulating, behind the scene computers. Here that’s the Peter Cavendish simulation in the computer built from alien technology. In the Transcendental books, it’s the computer intelligences manipulating alien and human alike in the Galactic Federation and on Earth.
The Earth of the “Pow’r” chapter seems a lot like the Earth of Transgalactic: managed by bureaucrats determined not to let new technology disrupt the social order. Here the character appropriately named Makepeace belongs to the de facto ruling body of Earth, the Energy Board. Its African leader disingenuously tells Jessica (the novel’s other main character introduced in this section), Adrian, and Frances that he is stopping the secret construction of an interstellar ship not as a police action but as an administrative action to counter disruptions in the power supply. In the trilogy, Transcendence is the disruptive technology which worries the Galactic Council. Here it’s star travel.
In both cases, a political order wants to freeze developments and in both cases there are discontents. In this novel, humans in this category commit violence, sabotage, and divorce. Transgalactic has Latha’s group and the would-be rapists sent after Asha. This plays into the long-standing Gunn theme that happiness is not good for humanity. The Earth of the trilogy and this novel may be worlds without war or want, but they are leading to a sort of degenerate humanity. (A theme, of course, at the center of Gunn’s The Joy Makers.)
In the Transcendental books, the scale of technological disruption is shifted. The Galactic Council’s various members, including humanity, fear the disruption of transcendence, and that danger is acknowledged at the end of this story when even more alien knowledge is discovered. The motive for suppressing star travel is the same for the U.S. government in “The Giftie”.
There is also a plot element of quest manipulated by outsiders. Cavendish secretly locks in the course for the Ad Astra. Asha, as the Prophet of Transcendence, sets the course for the ship in Transcendental.
Both this novel and Transcendental raise questions about the relationship of the aliens guarding technological secrets to the discoverers of that knowledge. That was the spiders in Transcendental. Here it is the Engimas whose seemingly dead world is discovered at the end of the novel.
Here, we learn that (supposedly – this is a novel of tentative knowledge and the value of proceeding in the face of doubt) the Shadows gave the Enigmas interstellar travel and wormholes, and the Engimas broadcast that knowledge to Earth .
As of the second Transcendental Machine book, Transgalactic, it’s still not clear if the Spiders built the Transcendental Machine and have degenerated or if another group built it to be destroyed by the Spiders.
Both this novel and Transgalactic feature a covert group not willing to bow to Earth bureaucracy. Here it is the group building a starship.
Interestingly, the place of AI is greatly heightened in Transgalactic from here. This novel just has Cavendish as the sole machine intelligence, and he’s treated more like a recreation of a human personality. AIs are major places, the equivalent of the various sentient races of the Galactic Council, in Transgalactic.
This novel has one novel element not in the Transcendental trilogy. The Shadows are aliens of dark matter and exist in the dark matter universe. They can only interact with the Enigmas indirectly.
The purpose of transcendence in the Transcendental Machine books is not as specific as the push by the Shadows to expand animate life in the universe. Where the divergent paths life seeded by aliens can take in this novel are barely mentioned, the different ways intelligence can evolve is a major feature of the Transcendental books.