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Transcendental
James Gunn
Tor, 304 pages

Transcendental
James Gunn
Born in 1923 in Kansas City, MO, James Gunn received a degree in journalism and an M.A. in English following three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He is now professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas, specializing in the teaching of fiction writing and SF and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 1971-72, James Gunn was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He won a Hugo Award in 1983 for Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. He is the author of at least 19 books and the editor of seven more.

James Gunn Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars, The Immortals and The Listeners
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars
SF Site Review: The Immortals
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars
SF Site Interview: James Gunn
SF Site Review: The Road To SF 5: The British Way

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Some writers are able to produce new works seemingly at whim, with volumes following each other like clockwork. For others, writing is a less scheduled affair whose outcome isn't quite so predictable, at least in terms of time. James Gunn falls into the latter category, with the result that, in a career stretching back five decades and more, a new publication feels like a bit of an event. That's the case with Transcendental, a science fiction novel that's one part Golden Age SF and one part The Canterbury Tales, held together with a dash of Murder on the Orient Express.

The historical setting is the Golden Age part. It's the multi-species, space-faring galactic civilization, with human beings as the unwelcome newcomers. That scenario is a classic one in SF going back to the pulp days, and has since continued serving writers from Andre Norton to David Brin. James Gunn uses it to establish a history where the sudden appearance of humans in galactic space has upset ancient alliances and set off a war that has only ended as Transcendental begins.

That war also gave rise to a rumor, a story of a machine that could grant transcendence, left behind by an ancient civilization. An expedition is mounted, on a ship with a suspicious captain and passengers on a quest. One of those passengers is Riley, a war veteran and trained assassin with a mission to find which of the passengers is the Prophet, and prevent him or her from reaching the Transcendental Machine. Unfortunately, before he can even get started, passengers, and crew are being killed, one by one.

From that point, the novel becomes a murder mystery, framed by personal accounts from several of the passengers as to who they are and why they are on board. The stories not only fill in the gaps, helping to solve the mystery, they also allow Gunn to move beyond the basic humans versus aliens scenario and show that the aliens had reasons for fearing or distrusting humans that were individual and meaningful to them and their species. That perspective, coupled with Riley's growth from a man on a mission to a conflicted investigator broadens Transcendental's theme and establishes the novel as not just a harkening back to an older era of SF, but an updating to a more modern, twenty-first century vision of humanity's place in the universe.

Transcendental is a classic example of the benefits of putting a new look on an old subject. The various parts of Transcendental, from the setting to the plot and the device of travelers sharing their stories on a journey have all been used before, at times famously so. It's the differing perspective that comes from putting them together with a few slight twists that elevates Transcendantal and makes an old story new again, exactly what one would expect from a Grand Master of science fiction.

Copyright © 2014 by Greg L. Johnson

Try as he might, reviewer Greg L Johnson really doesn't expect to transcend any time soon. Greg's reviews have appeared in publications ranging from The Minneapolis Star-Tribune to the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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