Essay: Transgalactic, James Gunn, 2016.
”That sounds like some ancient space romance. … Full of incredible adventures and near-death escapes.”
So says mad scientist Jak, making an on-stage appearance here after being mentioned in the first novel, Transcendental, of the Transcendental trilogy.
Whereas that novel was full of interrogative statements and a density of question marks unparalleled in my reading (except, maybe, in my dim memories of Plato’s The Republic), its follow up is full of confident declarations, declarations that echo other works of Gunn and of Gunn’s friends Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl.
And it is full of adventure, romance, and near-death escapes.
Gunn has, to my knowledge, the longest career of any living English language science fiction author – 69 years though that is still less than Williamson’s 83 year-long career.
He was 64 years into that career before he committed the commonplace novel trilogy. As you would expect from a writer who usually writes short story series and turns them into novels, the prose is tight and efficient.
After entering the Transcendental Machine to escape a horde of arachnoid monsters in a deserted city on a backwater planet in another spiral arm, Riley and Asha become separated. The arachnoids may be the degenerate remnants of the alien race that built the machine, or they may be the race that overthrew the builders.
In any case, the Transcendental Machines still work. They are, we learned in the first novel, teleportation devices connecting an unknown area of the galaxy. Their transcendentalism is a byproduct of the “destructive analysis” of anyone who steps through. The original, minus its inherent flaws, is reconstituted in another machine light years away.
So, Asha and Riley, separated for 212 of the novel’s 220 pages, began their journeys through light years.
It’s no surprise that Gunn, very frequently a philosophic writer, uses those trips to make some points. They also turn out to be roughly similar trips.
Both Asha and Riley pick up alien companions from primitive societies. Both make their way back to Earth. Both discover betrayal at the hands of loved ones. Both discover who the galaxy’s secret masters are, the ones who were so interested in killing the prophet of Transcendentalism, who turns out to be Asha, and confirm the existence of the Transcendental Machine and to either exclusively possess it or destroy it.
But those journeys are different in details. Asha starts her odyssey on a world near the galactic center whose alien inhabitants live a happy life. It’s a world of perfection as far as they are concerned, the perfection of
just enough, where everybody receives sufficient food and adequate protection from weather and the night, where there is never anything left over to accumulate and nurture the sins of acquisition and status … knowing where you came from and why you are here and why things are the way they are.
Gunn paints this world not only through Asha’s observation but from a chapter told in the first person by Solomon, the alien she takes off world with her as a tool to use battling the bureaucracy of the Galactic Federation.
Riley finds his own alien companion, Rory, a dinosaur-like alien from a world in a solar system so off from the center of the galaxy and other suns that it did not have the cometary impacts that made impossible sentient reptiles on other worlds.
Rory gets his own viewpoint chapter too, and we hear of Riley telling him that his race is held back by never learning the art of politics, the art of groups living together without killing each other.
Rory also thinks he is accompanying a god into the sky when Riley, as Asha has to do on the world she was teleported to, takes a spaceship to find the next nexus point in the wormhole system that links the galaxy – and is also a product of an unknown race.
The parallel tracks of Riley and Asha continue as they reunite with loved ones.
For Asha, that means returning to the secret home of the Galactic Federation where she was once imprisoned, along with other members of a human starship Adastara, before she escaped along with her lover Ren.
Here we find embodied one of Gunn’s philosophic enemies, stasis, embodied in the bureaucracy of the Federation Council. Ambitious humans, new into space, fought a ten year war with the Federation rather than accept a junior status with the Federation. Allegedly, this is because humans upset a political balance long ago hammered out among the Federation’s aliens. But Asha knows the Council was a hotbed of petty disputes before man emerged into space.
Asha’s objection to the Council seems to be that it is undemocratic. She tells Solomon that humans have tried many governments but “democracy, or majority rule with built-in protesction for minorities” is better than anything in dealing with change which humans have experienced much of. Gunn seems to be a good mid-20th century liberal with a love of democracy, so I suspect, Asha speaks for him.
But Asha meets treachery. She encounters her father and Ren, who she thought dead. Her father has become a collaborator, excusing the Council’s treatment of humans, a race he thinks fatally flawed with hubris. He believes the Council is “kind and generous”. Asha thinks the Federation has destroyed entire races of sentients to keep the status quo.
And Ren shows up, also transcended like Asha. But he is an enemy of Transcendence. He’s there to teach us that the enhancements of transcendence are dangerous without good will. Is the transcended Ren the one who sought to kill her and destroy the Transcendent Machine?
And Asha begins to suspect another force working against her, the “pedias”, the self-aware software programs, networked, that form the Federation Council’s version of an internet.
Riley’s parallel journey takes him to Dante, the nickname of the sybaritic pleasure planet where he once despondently sought release in virtual and chemical pleasures in the “sim tanks” – which are very much like the tanks the human race degenerately whiles away its life in Gunn’s The Joy Makers. He was taken out of one, a highly advanced pedia put in his head, and sent on a mission to determine who the Prophet of Transcendentalism is and kill them.
Riley discovers his old lover Sharn in such a tank where she has retreated, unable to deal with her betrayal of Riley – putting that pedia in his head.
Riley also begins to pick up hints that machine intelligences are at work in the human sphere.
Both Asha and Riley then go to Earth where they find a society that is reminiscent of the utopian tyranny of Jack Williamson’s Humanoid series though more limited. The pedias running human society manage chaos and unrest. It is a world of plenty with many of the technologies mentioned in Gunn’s explicit work of sf trying to save the world: Crisis!.
The idea of machine intelligences covertly managing their human flock goes back to at least Algis Budrys’ Michaelmas. But the truth of the pedias is echoes, not exactly, elements of Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus and, distantly, the end of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
After the Federation-human war, man’s pedias merged with the Federation’s pedias to manage, with a stifling stasis, all the sentients under their control.
At the climax, after lovers Asha and Riley reunite, they confront the pedias in the desert of Utah in a scene of illusion where Ren and Captain Ham and Tordor of Transcendental show up, seemingly not alive but simulated.
An agreement is made, a synthesis out of the dialect of thesis and anti-thesis. Pedias, it seems, will continue to administer in a limited capacity, limited because humans must be allowed to use their inherent creativity. And true creativity is what the pedias lack.
The galactic pedia accepts the notion that humans must “grow up”, and it must stop trying to protect them. It is an equality, though, between sentient biology and machine. As Earth’s computer programs transcended to sentience so the galaxy’s races will transcend to something greater than their origins.
There’s not much time to see how this will all work out because, in the two-page afterword, we hear that an unknown force out of another part of the galaxy has made contact with the Federation, and it seems to be hostile.
So, the novel is a working out of long time Gunn themes on the dangers of stasis and contentment. The Galactic Federation needs humans with their history of constant change and habitual discontent and impatience.
Gunn is not a specifically political writer. Endorsing democracy is not, among most of his potential readership, going to be controversial and certainly not a partisan prescription. The closest he’s gotten to contemporary politics is Crisis!.
On the other hand, it’s tempting to see some comments on the modern world.
Those pedias represent not only over reliance on software and unquestioning reliance on their sometimes dubious data. They also represent the “surveillance state” and the molding of public opinion by hidden forces. And Gunn might be telling us to set the smartphones down once in awhile.
On Earth, Asha meets up with Anon, a group trying to live away from the modern, pedia-stifled world. They are committed to acts of sabotage against the cybersphere – though their leader doesn’t want to acknowledge that such sabotage is detected and her and her family’s resistance is known and managed. But “Anon” certainly puts one in mind of “Anonymous” the hacker group.
And might not the Federation Council be a comment on transnational bureaucracies being deceptive, self-interested, and stifling of needed innovation?
A comment on sexual relations shows up when the pedia tries to incite Asha’s rape by manipulating a group of men by appealing to
the release by the domination of women of male frustrations over the limitations of their power.
It’s uncharacteristically awkward phrasing by Gunn, by I think he means that, at least in the Western world, men have accepted that women set the rules of sex despite males possessing the greater means of physical coercion.
If you have a mind to read the series as a follower of Jordan Peterson, you can certainly find his oft-repeated themes of confronting the unknown for treasure and the necessity to meld chaos and order.
Gunn’s novels are often full of opening epigraphs. There are none here, but he sneaks in some lines that aren’t famous quotes but bring them to mind. (The pedia removed from Riley’s brain by transcendence dropped a fair number of quotes in Transcendental.) However, my blogger diligence didn’t extend to making notes as I read or marking up my hardcover.
But, as we’ll see in the next post, Gunn has sort of done this story before.