Review: Transcendental Tales, James Gunn 2017 – 2018.
I did not know until I read Michael W. Page’s Saving the World Through Science Fiction: James Gunn, Writer, Teacher, and Scholar (which I’ll be reviewing two posts down the line) that James Gunn has a law named after him. Gunn’s Law says “Sell it twice”.
Now, I have certainly encountered “fix-ups” before, novels stitched together from shorter works first published in magazines. Most of Gunn’s novels were constructed that way. And I’ve certainly seen novel excerpts published in science fiction magazines.
However, this is something I haven’t seen before: a series of short stories based on chapters from a novel.
Most of these stories are variations of chapters in Gunn’s Transcendental. As Gunn stated in his essay on the Transcendental Trilogy and how it came to be, “Thought Experiment: Space Opera and the Quest for Transcendence” in the January/February 2018 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, he expanded the individual human and alien pilgrims into more “traditional narratives”. Oddly enough, the fullest explanation of when the Transcendental Tales stories are set, about a 1,000 years in the future, is in the issue with their second to last appearance.
I’m not going to cover these tales in a lot of detail. I’m not particularly interested in textual variant criticism. Author and theme studies are more my thing.
Nor am I going to address the merits of each tale as individual works.
I will say that, divorced from their original context in Transcendental, these stories do help you appreciate the inventiveness Gunn showed on the individual pilgrim tales. When reading the book, one might feel a bit of impatience as one wants to get through each individual story to get back to the main story of the pilgrimage to find the Transcendence Machine and the intrigues and dangers of that journey.
I don’t know how they would appear to someone unfamiliar with that novel. I would think they were interesting but unsatisfying because, of course, they leave in the air the fate of each pilgrim and don’t answer the question whether they will find transcendence. Some would have led me to seek out the novel. Others wouldn’t.
There are some new background and character bits that are of interest for those who have read Transcendental and my reviews will be from that perspective.
All the chapters I mention are from that novel.
“The Escape of the Adastra: Asha’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2017) is a fairly significant modification of the “Asha’s Story” chapter. The beginning three paragraphs seem to be new. The first paragaph talks about the pursuit of the Adastra after it escapes Federation Central. The second paragraph talks about the launch of the Adastra, the first human starship to leave Earth’s solar system. Asha’s father was born on the ship, and he mentions being taken to a room of Earth relics that the original crew frequently visited in their homesickness. The second generation only visited when forced to by their parents. The third – Asha’s generation – forgot them. The third paragraph expands the depiction of the voyage and alters and expands the opening of “Asha’s Story”. We get more detail of the building and inhabiting of Federation Central. The account of the relationship between Asha and Ren is expanded with added dialogue both on the ship and during their escape. Significantly, Asha, in “Asha’s Story ”, says
“Ren was in love with me, and I thought I was in love with him, although it may have been only sympathy for his plight and admiration for his dedication”.
This story has Asha wondering if she loves him or if she just likes his resolve and wonders if she can make Ren love her. The two stories differ markedly in their conclusion. This one gives details on their escape, their attempts to get a message back to Earth about the Galactic Federation’s plans to wage war on Earth and Ren contemplating that war is inevitable but, maybe with the death and destruction ended by a truce, there may be rewards. It ends with Ren noting that not knowing what will happen to them is exciting. “Asha’s Story” ends with the account of the Adastra landing on the planet of the spiders, battling them, and Asha entering the Transcendental Machine and becoming the Prophet.
“Transcendental Mission: Riley’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2017) is more than just a reprint of the chapter in Transcendental where Riley tells his story. Gunn mixes up the paragraph order, sometimes splitting paragraphs, and throwing in some material on the galactic war which derives from that novel’s chapter where Asha presents her story.
As with “Transcendental Mission: Riley’s Story”, “Weighty Matters: Tordor’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/August 2017) is more than just a reprint of the “Tordor’s Story” chapter. Gunn seems to present (I didn’t look that closely) new material in the opening and closing frame set at the foot of the space elevator where the novel starts, reorder the paragraphs from that chapter in the novel, and invent a new scene where Tordor is commanded by the High Dorian to go on the pilgrimage to find the Transcendental Machine. The significant addition to that chapter is the detailed instructions Tordor gets from the High Dorian on the way to Terminal.
“Arriving at Terminal: Xi’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2017) has a middle part that closely matches the “Xi’s Story” chapter. The beginning is from the viewpoint of the scheming, paranoid Xi as he enters Terminal. The end has detailed dialogue from the mysterious entities (probably the Galactic Federation’s pedia) that send Xi on his mission. Needless to say, Xi, in “Xi’s Story”, didn’t mention that his remit includes killing the Prophet, if necessary, and destroying the Transcendental Machine.
“The Ganymede Gambit: Jan’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2017) is substantially different than the “Jan’s Story” chapter. Not only is the last part of the chapter omitted – where Jan explains how Jon died on the Geoffrey, but it is at a higher resolution, more detailed (with personal interactions and dialogue and the details of terraforming Ganymede) than the book chapter. It also mentions how the karass came to the attention of Interplanetary News, an incident not mentioned in the novel at all. Gunn underplays the notion that the symbiotes infesting the karass are a form of transcendence they wish to be rid of thus echoing the rejection of the intelligence at the trilogy’s end, Transformation. Interestingly, though, he ramps up the paranoia by having the symbiote whisper to Jan, when Jak gives his instruction to find the Transcendental Machine and keep it out of alien hands, that Jak looks sick and not to listen to him. The Cedan philosophy of Jak echoes the shadow aliens of Gunn’s Gift from the Stars with their mission to foster animate matter though the Cedan philosophy is a more restrictive version, the fostering of sentience.
“Love and Death and the Star That Shall Not Be Named: Kom’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, November/December 2017) differs from the “Kom’s Story” chapter by adding an introductory section about Kom meeting Sam, and some of the information on Komranian society and biology comes from new dialogue between them. In this dialogue, we learn a bit more about Sam personally like he has a mate waiting for him when he returns.
“The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, January/February 2018) mainly differs from the “4107’s Story” chapter at its beginning. We hear of the birth of 4107 and a more biological details on his race of ambulatory, intelligent plants. There is also the addition at the end of 4107 showing up at Federation Central where he meets a rather condescending and ignorant Xiforian who gives 4107 permission to go on the pilgrimage to find the Transcendental Machine. It’s clear that the Florans are not well respected in the Federation and the idea of intelligent plants makes the other members, all evolved animals, nervous.
“The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, January/February 2018) is largely similar to the “Trey’s Story” chapter except for the brief addition of paragraphs at beginning and end. However, this story makes clear that inside Trey’s body are the bodies of the last two biological sentients on his world – the male from the land and the female from the sea, representatives of the two warring sentient races on Trey’s world – in suspended animation.
“The Waiting Room: The Pedia’s Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2018), unlike the previous Transcendental Tales, has no equivalent in Gunn’s Transcendental. It’s told from the point of view of the pedia in Riley’s head. Like the previous Transcendental Tales, it is the tale of the evolution of a sentient race. Here that race is the artificial intelligence created by man. This seems to be the first place we get a date of a 1,000 years in the future for the series. It also gives a synopsis of human space development and exploration. The story makes clear that the pedia is different than other pedias used by humans and aliens – it’s implanted in a brain, in this case Riley’s. It also says a year lapsed between the pedia being put in Riley’s head on Dante and him joining the pilgrimage at Terminal. The trepidation of the computer at seeing the assorted aliens, without the assistance of pedias in their head, and wondering how well they will cope with the barbarians outside Terminal is covered. They are “in need of transcendence, and undependable in emergencies”. Gunn, in the final sentence, after the pedia ponders how improbable success is, makes a hat tip to Voltaire’s Candide: “It was, the pedia thought, the worst of all possible worlds.”
“Attack on Terminal: The Pilgrims’ Story” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2018) is essentially an expanded version of the first chapter in Gunn’s Transcendental with, as usual with these Transcendental Tales, a bit added at the front and the end. Here the bit at the front goes into more detail about how the barbarian onslaught of Terminal is repelled. It’s an interesting note that the Transcendental Trilogy begins with a barbarian onslaught and ends with another sort of barbarian onslaught of alien intelligence repelled at its end. Or you can see the bookends of the trilogy as being a sort of Scylla and Charybdis of barbarism and too much order and paternalism. I was reminded, after reading Michael R. Page’s book, how prevalent the imagery, particularly in his earlier works, of barbarism is in Gunn’s work.