Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Transcendental by James Gunn

A little while ago, I decided to try an experiment, as I am fond of doing. I looked at my Top Ten lists from the last few years, and decided to check out "read-alikes" of my favourite books of the last little while, using NoveList's handy sidebar for suggestions.  So far, the results have been mixed. I think this is the fifth book I've read as a "read-alike," and there has really only been one that I've loved - Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union as a readalike for Jo Walton's Farthing. Oh, and I guess I really enjoyed John Steinbeck's To A God Unknown as a readalike for Marilynne Robinson. But at best, we're batting less than .500. Still, I'm enjoying the experiment and intend to continue.

However, after reading and loving Hyperion, (it topped my first Top 10 list, back in 2013,) Transcendental had a lot to live up to. Why it was picked as readalike wasn't hard to figure out. Like Dan Simmons' truly excellent novel, this is a "Canterbury Tales in space" - pilgrims on a dangerous voyage, each taking a turn to tell their story about who they are and why they're going where they're going.

Unfortunately, it's also nowhere near as good, and when I have such an easy benchmark to examine it against, it's not hard to figure out why. First, in Simmons' book, each short story can absolutely stand on its own (with perhaps the exception of Lamia's story, which is the weakest). They are each little urgent masterpieces of short fiction, tied together in a way that heightens the tension. In contrast, in Gunn's novel, each story is essentially the same story, and not a one of them could stand as something you would want to read outside the context of the book.

Almost every single story is a story of the evolutionary psychology of a different alien race, and how each of them is locked into biological patterns, and is looking for the Transcendence Machine to make their race something more. (The whole story is of a ship jumping through hyperspace to try to find this mythical machine. There's a "Prophet" involved, but since that role involves no speaking, recruiting, or prophesizing, it's a little bit of a dubious title.)

That's largely it. So, the stories are a bit simplistic, tending to all be about how evolution set psychological patterns, to a degree that pretty much obviates any kind of personality or choice, and the background story is not anywhere as interesting as Hyperion, either. There's no real pressing reason - I mean, in theory, there's the threat of a possible war if they fail, but it's very hypothetical, not at all an imminent thing they're trying to thwart. There is an enemy trying to make the attempt fail, but we learn very little about who those enemies might be, or what they want.

Of course, I could have told you that if you were starting off trying to do something similar to Hyperion, odds were that you would come up short, and the comparison just makes the shortcomings more obvious. If I try to look at this book without that lens, as just a science fiction book, how does it fare?

I would probably be less critical in the specifics - the writing is serviceable, and the story moves along quickly. It's never a slow book. It just really feels like there isn't a lot there. The stories are repetitive, and the search for the machine even more so, unmarred by anything deeper that would provoke or reward thought. And I was disappointed by the meaning of transcendence, which ended up just meaning physical optimization. The answer as to what the Transcendence Machine was was similarly a bit reductionist, and probably the least fun answer it could have been.

This all sounds like I hated the book. I didn't. However, it wasn't a great book, even before I tried to compare it to the superlative Hyperion.

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