Cracking open James Gunn's latest novel, Transcendental, is like finding a lost manuscript from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. And while reading it, I enjoyed the retro-stylings — but couldn't help but think this is the kind of thing science fiction has left behind for a reason.
Gunn's novels features a mixed group of alien and human travelers out on a mission to change the universe, or at the very least, find some meaning in their existence. Their journey is similar to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as they load up onto a spaceship and into uncharted territory to seek enlightenment, or to kill the prophet promising it. The whole thing is told in prose that is at once zippy and somewhat stilted.
Transcendental is a strange, and at times great, novel. It's equal parts locked-room mystery and Vance-ian Space Opera. Riley, the veteran of a major intergalactic war, has been sent to infiltrate the spaceship Geoffrey (another reference to Chaucer), where he's to track down and kill a prophet whose leading the expedition across the galaxy to seek out a Transcendental machine. Riley's mysterious benefactors have their own reasons for wanting this machine eliminated: the galaxy is at a perilous time, with peace finally achieved after years of warfare. Upsetting the balance, in their view, is a bad thing.
The action begins right from the start when a space elevator is destroyed from under Riley, adding to the number of pursuers onboard the ship. As we're introduced to an assembly of aliens, it becomes clear that everyone's got their own motivations for being on the ship, and as they band together for their own protection, it's clear that everyone's intentions are about to collide, violently.
Gunn puts together a broad, epic tale that spans millions of years, told through the individual tales from each of the primary characters. Interspersed throughout the present action are the individual tales of each character, which closely ties in with the history of their own species. It's a delightful part of the book, this uninhibited world building, as we're introduced to 4107, a plant-based alien, Asha, a human who had been captured on a generation ship, Jan, a human clone, Tordor, a massive warrior alien, Kom, from a harsh planet, and a couple of others along the way. Collectively, their stories show some common elements: each race rose up out of hardships from their respective worlds, before coming into conflict with one another. It's galactic history in broad strokes, Olaf Stapledon-style stories in bite-sized chunks.
There's a real element of wonder intended here, and for the most part, it really adds to the story. The end result is something that feels like it would fit with the publications of the 1950s, but not so much with the present state of the genre. Because of this dated feel, the book seems a bit off. Predominantly, Gunn owes a huge debt to authors such as H.G. Wells, Charles Darwin and Stapledon for the inspiration here, because he distills evolutionary biology into a quick, directed path that leads to sentience amongst races of the galaxy. Science Fiction has largely developed a greater degree of magnitude of nuance.
Another holdover here is the interactions between each of the characters throughout the novel, alien and human alike. Gunn relies heavily on a logical exchange between each as problems crop up for the passengers and crew of the Geoffrey. It's entirely reminiscent of stories from the Golden Age, where scientific reasoning was overwhelmingly the central force of the story, something that percolated down into the backgrounds of the characters and their dialogue. The same is true here, where it feels like every exchange and conversation comes out of a central blueprint. The book suffers as a result: it's repetitive, carried along only by the change in scenery.
Above all this is a largely unexplored question: what is the value of transcendence? With each of their missions, each character seems to lose sight of the obvious value of what they're after and what's being offered. Predominantly, for all the logic that's used by the characters, none of them really question their mission to kill the prophet. Gunn explores the idea in a very Golden Age manner: it's a machine that enhances and improves the individual, rather than the improvement coming out of a character's experiences and central morality.
Transcendental is an exciting read, with plenty of action, intrigue and some genuinely interesting characters. But, Gunn leaves more on the table once we reach the end, with the final reveal just as circular as much of the plot, and with a lot left hanging. It's a disappointment, because despite the flaws, there was certainly lots of potential leading towards a rewarding conclusion. At the end of the day, Transcendental is a neat book, especially for the nostalgic-minded reader, willing to be transported back to some of modern science fiction's foundations. If this were published back in the day, it would have been a monumental, classic novel. Published now, I'm not so sure. In any case, it's an entertaining, if at times, a frustrating read.