Essay: Transformation, James Gunn, 2017.

Covery by Thom Tenery

Well, that was anticlimactic.

That was my first reaction to finishing up Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy.

The second volume, Transgalactic, had a plot, according to Gunn, structured on The Odyssey, this one is structured along the lines of Jason and the Argonauts’ tale. Our questers are the two main characters of the trilogy,  Asha and Riley, and Tordor who didn’t, in fact, die at the end of Transcendental. Joining them is Adithya, son of Latha, leader of the covert rebellion against Earth’s pedia in Transgalactic.

They want to know what menace, revealed in the preceding book, is making the sentient races of the Galactic Federation go silent on the fringes of the galaxy.

A subplot also has Jer, cloned descendant of mad scientist Jak whom we met in Transgalactic, attempting to convince the staid Federation Council that the modified Transcendental Machine (named, what else?, the Jak Machine) poses no danger and works. These sections are sometimes humorous.  She also suggests that, to fight the destroyer of the “silent worlds” (whose nature she doesn’t know), the Galactics will need to be Transcended.

The trilogy concludes with the line “’It’s a long story,’ Asha said.”

And, indeed, on thinking about it, that end seems less anticlimactic. Gunn’s stories often linger in the mind after reading them and new questions come to mind after reading his condensed prose. This novel, for instance, is a trifling 209 pages long.

In their voyages in the “red sphere”, a spaceship made of intelligent matter by the builders of the Transcendental Machine, the party visits many alien worlds. The formerly sentient races of each have all met sad ends ranging from extinction, renouncing civilization, forgetting how to maintain their technological civilizations, or engaging in a murderous war between sentients.

Something malevolent is at work. A disease? Invasion?

Asha and company begin to find traces of an alien message on each affected world, some meme that crippled the aliens’ sentience at work.

Gunn has said he’s put a lot of easter eggs into this trilogy with references to other works of science fiction and fantasy. After all, he’s a scholar of science fiction as well as a practioner.

A notable one is on the silent world Nepenthe. In the ruins of its civilization,

 In the middle of the plaza was a pedestal, rising majestically from a flat surface that was smooth under Riley’s feet, and culminating in a figure that had itself been carved out of the same basic rock as all the plaza and all the structures that surrounded it. The figure was longer than it was tall, and apparently a rendering of something that once had lived or been worshipped. It had four short legs that supported a body that swelled in the center and tpared at each end.  At one end was something like a flattened tail and at the other a head with a protruding muzzle and a mouth surrounded by tentacles.

That brings to mind H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and also his stories “Dagon” and “The Temple”.

Asha’s remark on it being a “long story” is true because the trilogy ends with a depiction of a struggle fought over possibly billions of years.

The force rendering those alien worlds silent is a billion year old machine intelligence whose manifesto broadcast to them includes the phrase to “serve and protect” sentient life. This is another echo, like Earth’s Pedia, a copy of which accompanies Asha and company, of Gunn friend Jack Williamson’s famous “With Folded Hands”.

All the former charges of this machine intelligence are dead.

The means by which this message causes the several receiving alien sentient races to self-destruct isn’t clear. Like much in this trilogy, it’s nature is not clear. Asha and company, like all us sentient beings, have to grope through life with limited knowledge.

The Pedia, who is taken over temporarily by the alien intelligence, says it seems like it’s made up of several kinds of intelligence including uploaded alien minds. He also dispute’s Asha’s speculation that it has gone senile which, whether Gunn intended it or not, recalls the Mad Mind in Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.

All the party reject the intelligence’s proposal. It would place the races of the Galactic Federation in the position of their primitive ancestors in thrall to alien gods. Asha specifically says that the Galactic Federation is used to struggle and learning in a mindless universe. It is implied the blandishments of the invading intelligence must be denied for the same reason that happiness in Gunn’s The Joy Makers must be:  it is stultification, an escape from struggle and attempting to understand the universe.

Interestingly, the intelligence destroying the silent worlds is described much like Trey in Transcendental: a bridge between inanimate matter and thinking matter which, incidentally, the red sphere seems to be also.

As revealed with this concluding novel, my hypothesis that Gunn’s Gift from the Stars was a thematic dress rehearsal for this trilogy was partially disproved.

The trilogy ends with a call for struggle, to reject a gift from the stars — at least the one offered by that intelligence. Gift from the Stars‘ very title signals that it is about accepting alien knowledge. On the other hand, the trilogy is about the value of the past and future knowledge embodied in the Galactic Federation, and Gift from the Stars ends with the gift of Enigmatic knowledge.

The trilogy’s conflict is not between animate and inanimate matter or thinking machines and biological sentience but between the individualized minds of the Galactic Federation and this destroying intelligence. We do find out that the original creators of the Transcendental Machine were rendered culturally degenerate by the alien intelligence and built the red sphere to destroy it. In fact, they put their minds into the ship, the “voices” the Pedia hears.

This is not an identical replay to the end of The Gift from the Stars. The struggle humanity is called to there is the struggle of entropy vs. order, lifeless matter vs. animate matter.

There is a curious bookend of the trilogy.

Transcendental, in the individual aliens’ tales of how their race evolved and they personally came to the pilgrimage, is about the rise of sentience. This novel is about sentience effectively ending in the sense of maintaining civilization. Barbarians out of the jungle assault Terminal at the beginning of the trilogy. Barbarism of a very technologically advanced and much larger scale threatens the Federation at the end.

Between primitivism and technological decadence, humans and the rest of the galaxy’s sentient life must find their purpose and reason for struggle.

And so the trilogy ends.

But there is a follow up from Gunn: Trancendental Tales. We’ll look at them in the next post.


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