A Prophet has come from beyond the furthest reaches of the galaxy, bearing word of a Transcendental Machine with some vaguely defined power to do something unclear that might impact the galactic balance of power, somehow, for some reason. Nobody quite knows the details, but that’s not going to stop them from assembling a pilgrimage and embarking on the first book of the Transcendental Trilogy. Let’s meditate on Transcendental, by James Edwin Gunn.
Transcendental, an epic, high-concept space opera, is a Canterbury Tales of the far future in which beings from many planets hurtle across the universe to uncover the secrets of the legend of Transcendentalism. Riley, a veteran of interstellar war, however, is not journeying to achieve transcendence, a vague mystical concept that has drawn everyone else on the ship to this journey into the unknown at the far edge of the galaxy. His mission is to find and kill the prophet who is reputed to help others transcend. As the ship speeds through space, the voyage is marred by violence and betrayal, making it clear that Riley is not the only one of the ship’s passengers who is not the spiritual seeker they all claim to be.
As tensions rise, Riley realizes that the ship’s journey is less like the Canterbury Tales and more like a harrowing, deadly voyage on a ship of fools. Looking for allies, he becomes friendly with a mysterious passenger named Asha, who, like so many others on the ship, is more than she appears. But while she professes to be just another pilgrim, he comes to realize that like him, she is keeping secrets could be the key to Riley’s assignment, or might make him question everything he thought he knew about Transcendentalism and his mission to stop it.
Transcendental is one of those books that is more about the journey than the destination. Indeed, the destination is kept deliberately quite vague; while everyone agrees that the rumored Transcendental Machine is extremely important and could potentially upend the balance of power in the galaxy, they all seem to have quite different ideas about what it is actually capable of doing. Indeed, the most interesting thing in the book is not the sought-after Machine, but the backstories and motivations of the aliens seeking it. In the style of the Canterbury Tales – or the Hyperion Cantos, if you want to stick within the sci-fi genre – each pilgrim tells a story about how they came to seek the Transcendental Machine, often providing in the process a history of their entire species. That is where Transcendental really shines as speculative fiction: the insights given into how each race evolved, and the impact this has had on their views of the Universe, how they see their place in it, and their reasons for desiring or fearing the Transcendental Machine.
The rest of the book, unfortunately, is a bit weaker. It’s supposed to be a mystery who among the pilgrims is secretly the Prophet guiding their journey, but I immediately pegged Asha as the one. She just has that classic distant and mysterious attitude, holding herself aloof from the others and occasionally making cryptic remarks, which practically screams that she’s holding back a hugely important revelation.
The journey itself ends up being a mostly boring one. There are occasional events which seem like they might portend drama – the murder of a passenger, the captain sealing the bulkheads between the passenger and crew quarters, an unusually rough hyperspace jump – but no drama actually materializes. And while the stories that the passengers tell are intellectually interesting as examinations of evolutionary biology in different planetary environments and the resultant impact on species’ philosophy and culture, they don’t exactly make for super-suspenseful thrill-a-minute pulse-pounding page-turners. To put it short, this is a book where very much is said but very little actually occurs.
Things only start happening right at the end, when the pilgrims descend to the planet of the Transcendental Machine and are attacked by alien spiders. The ending comes extremely abruptly: the Machine is revealed to just be a transporter rather than whatever omnipotent wish-granting device some of the alien species seem to have been imagining it as; Riley and Asha make it to the machine and pass through it to arrive at two separate destinations. No closure is given as to the other pilgrim seeking the machine, whether they eventually found it and were teleported to other locations or killed by the spiders. But that is forgivable when one considers that Transcendental is only book one of a trilogy. A cliffhanger ending is appropriate under such circumstances, and doubtless the next book will pick up where this one left off and resolve the dangling plot threads.
At least, it will if it’s a good book, which remains to be seen. Transcendental is more of a “decent enough” book; it has some indisputably good parts in it, but they don’t all quite mesh together due to the large amounts of boring padding between them. That said, I found the aliens’ tales to be of enough interest to deem this book worth reading.
Final Rating: 3/5