The jacket copy of James Gunn’s new novel, Transcendental, makes no bones about its influences: “The Canterbury Tales in space” is a rough paraphrasing—and a fair one—but if a reference to Chaucer puts you off, you’re missing the point entirely.
What the copy should say—and a better advertisement of the book’s direction—is that the novel combines Chaucer’s Tales with Darwin’s Origin of Species, resulting in a series of case studies in convergent alien evolution that would make the father of modern biology himself proud (if not very, very confused).
In Transcendental (which Kirkus starred) humans have left Earth to find the vast reaches of space already populated by a federation of alien races known as the Galactics. The Galactics have achieved stability only after millennia of internal conflict and welcome humanity warily as a junior member in their organization, worried about the species’ youth and impetuosity. Humanity, unsurprisingly, can’t accept “junior” anything and war ensues as the Galactics try to hold on to the stability (or stasis, depending on your point of view) that they so prize. Eventually the war ends and humanity is accepted as a full member of the interstellar union, with each alien race pledging to defend the peace by falling on the first member to break it. This is all background, of course, and is only revealed within the framing tales that contain most of the novel’s exposition.
The book starts out with Riley, a human, booking passage aboard the good spaceship Geoffrey along with a slew of alien representatives and agents, in order to go on a pilgrimage to find the Transcendental Machine, the promised savior of a new alien religion sweeping the universe. Once on board, the pilgrims start sharing their stories of how they came to be there and what their motivations are for making the trip—each under heavy suspicion from their fellows as possible saboteurs. Large parts of the novel unfold like an Agatha Christie book or detective procedural, with everyone scrutinizing each other’s actions to find the Prophet, the secret leader of the expedition thought to be hidden among the passengers. But where the book really shines is in its treatment of alien evolution.
The underlying assumption of Transcendental is simple: “The instinct for self-preservation is a prerequisite to intelligent life,” Gunn says. “Tied up in that is a need to perfect ourselves—to overcome our physical and mental limitations.”
The aliens in Transcendental come from a variety of worlds and environments, representing machine, vegetable, animal and other, stranger, forms of life. They all have radically different motives for finding the machine, of course, as befits a group of radically different beings. But the stories of how they came to the pilgrimage all hinge on (and include an account of) the sentience their species has achieved, reflecting in the process a set of common experiences: the environmental pressure to grow and adapt in the face of existential threats, the boon—and burden—of an intelligent being’s need to understand the world around him/her/it/them. This curiosity is what Gunn believes actually provides the engine for transcendence.
“People would rather know than be happy,” Gunn tells me. “The basic force driving all thinking creatures is to understand.”
But—as he shows in his book—there are always outliers. The representative of an alien species evolved from plant life bucks this trend by seeking the Transcendental Machine so that its race, which stores in its collective memory all the shared experiences of its kind, can return to a time before sentience. It’s a deft way of both exploring a radically different form of consciousness and communicating the idea that the need to understand and the desire to be blissfully unaware will always co-exist, the flip side of a coin that we all share.
The narrative promise of the novel is largely deferred to future installments of what will most likely be a trilogy. But the stories, which compress thousands of years of multiple alien evolutionary timelines into a few tales, are a wonder to those interested in world building and the slow but transformative force of the imperative to survive and thrive. Darwinists, take heart: This book is for you.
Joe Marshall is a journalist and web developer fascinated by speculative fiction and the issues of information, privacy, and identity.