My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It is great when an author has fun with a book, because that energy often gets transmitted to the reader. Transcendental is an infectiously joyous riff on the possibilities of SF. James Gunn is not only in total control of his material here, but is absolutely up-to-date with the latest genre predilections. One would expect no less from a Grand Master, of course.
Having said that: Gunn’s writing is concise to the point of being rather bare-bones workmanlike. This could put some people off, as the clipped, almost brusque style does take some getting used to. However, once you are into the flow of the story, this is hardly noticeable. It is also very funny in places, and there are a lot of nuggets for the dedicated SF reader to ferret out.
The story is deceptively simple: an oddball menagerie of alien species, including a token human (the fly in the galactic ointment as it were) gather on a planet called Terminal to catch a space elevator to the waiting spaceship Geoffrey, tasked to hunt down a piece of technology known colloquially as the Transcendental Machine.
This could tip the balance of power in the civilised galaxy if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Needless to say, all of the representatives, or pilgrims, in keeping with the Chaucer motif (one of the many allusions that Gunn seeds his novel with), think they are the Chosen Species.
The book opens with a bang, literally, as the station where the pilgrims gather are attacked. From this breathless opening, Gunn accelerates smoothly into a fantastic SF thriller. The narrative is interspersed with each of the alien travellers recounting their origin story, and why transcendence is the prerogative of their species.
A lot of the reviews I have read give the impression that, as a result, Transcendental is merely a series of short stories strung together like beads, the string being the spaceship Geoffrey and its quest. This could not be further from the truth. Each of the stories not only gives us the back story of the storyteller, but also adds much depth and nuance to the general plot.
Gunn’s inventiveness in these sections is incredible, giving voice to a disparate range of aliens, from a plant-like to a bird-like creature, and yet another entirely self-contained in a coffin-like box on treads.
There are many surprise twists and turns, with a nail-biting build-up to a fantastic ending. I suspect this ending could prove divisive, but I thought it a lovely bow out. That there is scope for a sequel is wonderful; let us just hope Gunn does not keep us waiting as long again as we had to for this new novel.