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."