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Transcendental [Hardcover]

James Gunn
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
RRP: 17.99
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Book Description

20 Sep 2013
Riley, a veteran of interstellar war, is one of many beings from many different worlds aboard a ship on pilgrimage that spans the galaxy. However, he 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. While their ship speeds through space, the voyage is marred by violence and betrayal, making it clear that some of the ship's passengers are not the spiritual seekers they claim to be. Like the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a number of those on the star ship share their unique stories. But as tensions rise, Riley realises that the ship is less like the Canterbury Tales and more like a harrowing, deadly ship of fools. When he becomes friendly with a mysterious passenger named Asha, he thins she's someone he can trust. However, like so many others on the ship, Asha is more than she appears. Uncovering her secrets could be the key to Riley's personal quest, or to make him question everything he thought he knew about Transcendentalism and his mission to stop it.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Books; 2nd edition (20 Sep 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0765335018
  • ISBN-13: 978-0765335012
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.2 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 110,712 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Jim Gunn doesn't publish a new novel very often, but when he does it's a whopper. Transcendental is his best yet, and in it he demonstrates his possession of one of the most finely developed skills at world-building (and at aliens-creating to populate those worlds) in science fiction today. Read it! --Frederik Pohl, bestselling author of Gateway James Gunn, after a long, stellar career in science fiction, is a master of the narrative art--as he shows in this Chaucerian pilgrimage through the galactic future. --Robert Silverberg, bestselling author of Lord Valentine's Castle

About the Author

JAMES GUNN is the Hugo Award-winning science fiction author of The Joy Makers,The Immortals, and The Listeners, and the coauthor, with Jack Williamson, of the classic epic SF novel Star Bridge. Named a Grand Master of He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars astonishingly good 9 April 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A space opera thriller perfectly written. James Gunn's writing is innovative and precise, his view of galactic civilisation both grand and decadent. A really enjoyable read for anyone who likes sci-fi, romance, or both.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Transcend the transcendential 30 Oct 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a novel with some features that are not uncommon in SF literature but with some interesting twists. It's theme is based on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. A starship containing an odd selection of pilgrims, mostly aliens, is on a pilgrimage to the galactic edge in search of "transcendence". Each pilgrim in turn recounts their own story, although it soon appears that not all, if any, are truthful. One by one the pilgrims are murdered, so it is clear that not all are on a spiritual journey.

The hero of the story, Riley, is not searching for spiritual enlightenment, but has been placed on the starship in an attempt to identify the "prophet" whose message might lead to the breakdown of the tenuous peace that holds across the galaxy. He eventually teams up with Asha, the only other human on the voyage. I found the climax of the story a bit of a let-down but as a whole the book is an excellent read.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars transcendental 16 Nov 2013
By sagi
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
good book,i found the ending was disapponiting as it left me wondering what was it all about!after all the care that the authour took with character and plot development.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.5 out of 5 stars  24 reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars half is brilliant, other half much less so. Worth it for the good half 27 Sep 2013
By B. Capossere - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
If you took The Canterbury Tales, Ship of Fools, The Origin of Species, and And Then There Were None, mixed them all up and added a pinch of Asimov, Brin, Blish and maybe a few others, you'd have something approximating James Gunn's newest novel, Transcendental. While those are some quality ingredients, and there were some long moments of pure deliciousness, in the end the blend felt a bit off in its proportions (I wanted more Chaucer) and the novel left me feeling a bit unsatisfied.

Lest one think I'm reading too much into the literary associations, I'll merely point out that Gunn gives us a spaceship named Geoffrey, an AI that recites "Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages," and a spaceship captain who asks "and how did you come on this ship of fools?" He's not exactly hiding the allusions.

Transcendental is set against the backdrop of a multi-species galaxy that has just finished a massive war, partially precipitated by the appearance of humanity amongst the ranks of interstellar travelers--a humanity that didn't take kindly to the idea of being allowed a seat only at the kids' table. Now, as the Galactics try to maintain a fragile peace and get back to their millennia's-old love of status quo (change only disrupts and leads to bad results), a new wrench has been thrown into the gears. A new, potentially disruptive religion is sweeping the galaxy following the rumors that someone known only as the Prophet has discovered an alien Transcendental Machine--one that will allow whatever species who gains control of it to, well, transcend itself and thus gain an advantage over the others. Now, the spaceship Geoffrey, packed with pilgrims of all sorts of species, is heading off on a pilgrimage to find that TM and to while away the time, they pilgrims decide to tell their personal stories of how they ended up on the Geoffrey. Little is as it seems, though, as each of the passengers has their own reason for making this pilgrimage, not all of them aboveboard and some of them murderous. Major outside forces are at work, some aimed at sabotaging the pilgrimage, some at gaining control of the TM if it exists, some at assassinating the Prophet. As the ship drives farther from away from known space, passengers start dying and it's clear the killer (s) is/are among them.

The strongest sections of the novel by far, for me, were the Chaucerian tales told by the pilgrims. Compelling, wildly original in the forms and diversity of alien life telling the story, always eloquent, sometimes moving, sometimes gripping, sometimes humorous, these tales within tales stood out as the best writing in Transcendental and each time I came to the end of one I immediately began looking forward to the next. My one complaint was that they could have been a bit more varied in voice, but otherwise I could have done with twice the number, easily. Here is a taste:

We are called the People, just as species throughout the galaxy call themselves the People. Whatever language we use--the movement of air through passages that restrict its flow in various distinguishable ways, the rubbing of mandibles, the gestures of tentacles, the release of pheromones, or, as in our case, the disturbance of air by the movement of fronds--the translation is always the same. We are the People . . .

We were a flower people, and for uncounted generations we lived our simple life of seedlings springing from the soil, growing into maturity and sprouting flowers, enjoying fertilization, dropping our petals and then our seeds upon the soil, and depositing our decaying bodies to nourish the next generation. The generations were uncounted because every day was the same, and every year: we were born, we lived, we reproduced, and we died . . . We thrived in peace and plenty amid mindless warmth and fertile soil. That is the time the People look back upon as paradise before we were expelled.

This then, is the story of a Fall. And a long battle against unaware-but-no-less-deadly alien invaders, the story of how a "flower people" managed to gain sentience, to reach into the stars, and why this particular flower individual (an odd concept to them) was sent out into the cold loneliness to seek a particular kind of transcendence for its people.

Each taleteller has a story of adversity, of struggle, of seeking and striving, of curiosity, of a desire for growth and knowledge and, yes, transcendence, and the stories, individual as they are, add up to a cumulatively powerful commentary on what it means to be "human."

Unfortunately, what comes between the Chaucerian stories is less successful. The mystery of just which passenger is the Prophet is relatively easy to figure out, though Gunn doesn't try and play it for very long. The tension that builds as passengers begin to die off is somewhat effective, but never really grabs the reader by the throat--it feels like it should hold our attention and interest much more strongly than it does. The same goes for the mysterious outside forces that have forced our narrator (Riley) into this mission and are also making use of other passengers as well as the captain himself (whether in concert with Riley's masters or at cross-purposes isn't clear early on).

The TM itself, how it was discovered, how this ship and its mission were created, and several other aspects remain frustratingly vague for too long (or forever). The interactions between the captain, whom Riley knows from a shared past, and the passengers are all over the map--sometimes they add tension, sometimes they seem to shift in wholly arbitrary fashion to serve the plot, sometimes they seem wholly implausible.

The backstory involving humanity's leap into space, First Contact, the start of the Galactic War and its ending, is revealed slowly through the various tales, but it is, to be honest, only mildly interesting and will read familiar to science fiction fans--the stuffy Galactic Counsel, the upstart humans, and so on. The novel's ending, involving some fighting, some running, some hiding, and then some possible transcending, feels anti-climactic and even a bit tired, almost as if Gunn is going through the motions and he himself misses the far more compelling stories from earlier in the novel.

I do like the ruminations on what it means to be "human," what transcendence might mean and might offer. I enjoyed the interactions amongst the core group of characters--Riley, a mysterious woman named Asha, a handful of aliens--as they form protection groups and try to figure out who will stab whom in the back first. And I absolutely loved, loved, the pilgrims' tales. While I'd give the overall reading experience a solid "meh," those pages devoted to the aliens' stories were so wonderfully evocative that I'm going to say pick up Transcendental anyway and give it a shot. If you find you're enjoying it more than I did, keep reading. But if you're not that impressed, then do yourself a favor and skip ahead and read all the tales; they're gems amongst the mundane dirt and gravel. And you can decide which alien "telleth in this caas Tales of best sentence and moost solaas."
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I really don't get the positive reviews. 29 Nov 2013
By scott - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
After reading "Transcendental" I was left mystified by the overwhelmingly positive reviews for the work.

Unfortunately, I have little if anything positive to say of it. The story concerns a soldier named Riley who is tasked with going on a pilgrimage, the ultimate purpose of which is to determine if there really is a "transcendental machine" than can help a person or species "transcend". Although what transcendence actually entails is never fully specified, it seems that it includes becoming both more intelligent and more adaptable, and is undoubtably an advantage in the galactic competition between species for resources and control.

Riley thus finds himself on a decrepit ship, piloted by a suspicious captain, crewed by an equally suspicious crew of unfit reprobates, and with a passenger roster of a variety of various aliens also tasked with going on the pilgrimage to find the machine (for their respective species' advantage). It soon becomes clear that Riley can trust no one, not even the captain, and that alliances will be necessary to survive the journey across the stars.

While this sounds interesting, it actually isn't. The writing is extremely dry--almost entirely devoid of colour, metaphor, simile, or poetry. The characters themselves are almost entirely unidimensional, which is incredibly disappointing. The author also misses some amazing opportunities: as various alien passengers tell their personal stories about how they ended up on the starship, we think we are going to get some unique tales of alien life and philosophy. I was expecting the author to have a clever subtext where the aliens' stories were really the philosophies of various political philosophers (Hobbes, Mill, etc.) played out. But in spite of a few vague clues that this was Gunn's intent, it just doesn't happen. The stories are all ultimately the same: the aliens each survived cruelty in a survival of the fittest environment to earn their place on the starship.

And the ending, which I will try to describe without spoilers, is an enormous disappointment. With all the appearance of an epic quest, the voyage ultimately ends in complete pathos. Neither from the point of view of the superficial story, nor any distant metaphor or subtext is there any payoff.

Overall, this is a novel which promises far more than it delivers. And what is most frustrating, we are not even treated to especially elegant prose or clever style as the novel progresses. Instead it dully lurches from scene to scene, and ends with a muffled thud. Entirely unsatisfying.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tries to be great by implying its greatness 18 Jan 2014
By William Preston - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
The people who gave this glowing reviews have, I suspect, reviewed the book they imagined rather than the one they were given. The book nods toward weighty texts, but only in the same way LOST nodded toward big ideas by giving characters the names of historical figures. The aliens on a pilgrimage do tell stories, but not Chaucerian stories; they all tell pretty much the same story, in fact, and in much the same voice.

The novel starts well enough, but following the unnecessary and rather lazily written infodump chapter, the book has trouble finding its space legs, lurching about with an inconsistent tone and hazy focus. (First-person narration might have brought more focus, though I suppose it would have revealed the protagonist's survival—not that that's really in question.)

Being told, toward the end, that those alien stories were probably lies, just as the book hustles toward an unsatisfying conclusion, suggests that the novel was not intended as a Canterbury Tale but rather a shaggy dog tale.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An instant masterpiece 3 Nov 2013
By Oleg - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I admit my ignorance of James Gunn prior to this book. According to wikipedia, his work from the 60s and 70s is considered his most significant. Now I should either read up on some of that, or it is time to rewrite this part. "Transcendence" is beyond doubt one of the best books of the year. On just 300 pages, the story unfolds almost by itself and it is packed with ideas and potential more than twice the pages. Fortunately, Mr Gunn did not sit down to write a trilogy and exercise himself in unnecessary excursions. The result is a very satisfying picture of alien life and an expedition into new regions of the galaxy that is awe-inspiring and surprising. I was sometimes reminded of Philip Palmer's "Hell Ship", although the story and the execution are very different. Both are highly recommended, though.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A modern, Sci-Fi retelling of the Canterbury Tales 6 April 2014
By Elie Harriett - Published on
An excellent, very mature retelling of the Canterbury Tales. Very accessible for a modern audience. A group of pilgrims, put together in a ship due to various circumstances, are on a quest to find a machine which will send them through the next step of evolution. Humans among them, but not the dominant force in the galaxy.

The story is very well articulated, easily followed. The characters are relatable and the story is very engrossing. This is the first book I have read by James Gunn and I was very impressed with how engrossed I was in such a well-crafted tale.
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