Transcendental by James Gunn

TranscendentalI had high hopes for Transcendental, the new novel by veteran SF author James Gunn, based on the publicity copy from publisher Tor:

Riley, a veteran of interstellar war, is one of many beings from many different worlds aboard a ship on a 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 starship share their unique stories. But as tensions rise, Riley realizes 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 thinks 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 make him question everything he thought he knew about Transcendentalism and his mission to stop it.

James Gunn’s Transcendental is a space adventure filled with excitement and intrigue that explores the nature of what unifies all beings.

Unfortunately, my expectations were not met. At first, I tried to go along with the novel’s old-fashioned, pulp-era science fiction atmosphere. The first chapter introduces main character Riley and a collection of exotic aliens. There’s one from a high gravity planet, and one that looks like a weasel, and one that looks like a flower, and one that lives inside some kind of tank. It’s all suitably strange and exotic, but aside from their alien physiques, the aliens feel entirely faceless. There’s no context, no history, no connection to the reader. Likewise, the setting tries to give the impression of having a vast history, but it falls flat. Where an author like, say, Vernor Vinge or Iain M. Banks could use the same base material and evoke a three-dimensional, fully realized setting, in Transcendental it ends up feeling like sense of wonder for the sake of sense of wonder.

To be fair, this is all based on the first 60 of 300 or so pages in this novel, which is all I read before I gave up on it. It’s entirely possible, likely even, that setting and characters gain some depth as the novel progresses, but I had no interest in reading more because of the novel’s horrible prose. Transcendental reads like a confused, barely edited first draft, full of run-on sentences and overly long sentences with way too many sub-clauses. I’m not sure what happened here during the editing process, but the quality of the prose in this novel is simply not up to par for what you’d expect from a major publisher like Tor.

I soldiered on despite the uninspiring setting and the poor prose, because I always give a story the chance to improve until I hit the 20% mark. I finally ended up setting Transcendental aside based on a two separate character descriptions, which I’ll quote for you here to give you an idea of the quality of the prose.

First of all, there’s Asha, the “mysterious passenger” mentioned in the synopsis above. I’m guessing she’ll be one of, if not the only female character in the novel, maybe like the Wife of Bath in the Canterbury Tales. Or Smurfette, of course. Here’s are a few lines from her initial description:

He had saved the woman until last. She sat like a cat, relaxed but lithe, as if she could spring into action at a touch.

I can’t prove here that I expected the first female character in this novel to be compared to an animal in the very first line, but let’s just say it didn’t come as a surprise.

She had dark hair and blue eyes, a combination that was striking even if she wasn’t beautiful—her features were regular and her eyes were large, but they moved restlessly; moreover her mouth was too firm and her chin too set.

I expect that anyone with some editing experience has developed several nervous twitches by now? What’s going on with the conjunctions and punctuation in this sentence? This happens all through the novel, or at least the part of it I read.

But somehow she seemed just right for what she was and Riley thought he would like to know her, and maybe he would.

I’ll leave it at that for Asha. The second character description I’ll quote here is the one for the ship’s captain. Brace yourselves.

The captain was a large man with short legs, almost as if he had been cut down to fit into spaceship dimensions. His heavy black eyebrows met over his nose, a nose that overshadowed a dapper mustache—all this in defiance of fashion and genetics. His dominant feature, though, were his eyes; they were blue, and fierce like those of a desert Arab.

That’s right, dear reader: the captain’s eyes are just as fierce as a desert Arab’s. Not just any Arab, mind you—a desert Arab. All this, presumably, “in defiance of fashion and genetics”, much like his heavy black eyebrows and mustache. It’s at this exact point that I was reminded of the motto of Fantasy Literature, a site I used to write for regularly: life’s too short to read bad books.

Before closing Transcendental for the final time, I noticed its dedication: “For Kimberly Cannon and Jim Frenkel, my own Transcendental Machine.” I don’t know if Transcendental got caught up in the chaos of Jim Frenkel’s departure from the Tor editorial team, or if that entire disgraceful episode had nothing to do with the end product. Maybe it’s just an example of a veteran author getting too much leeway. Whatever the case may be, I simply cannot recommend this novel.

Transcendental is available from Tor on August 27th, 2013.

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7 Responses to Transcendental by James Gunn

  1. That’s too bad, this was on my list of to-reads based on the book description, but you’re right, that description is pretty awful.

  2. Too bad about the book, but those tweets about fierce Arabs and lithe cats were the best thing I saw all day.

  3. Pingback: Linkspam, 8/16/13 Edition — Radish Reviews

  4. seaklos says:

    I was just about to pick this up after my current reads but I don’t think that’ll be happening anymore.

  5. Pabkins says:

    Now I’m freaking sad I just bought this while I was at WorldCon! Well I’m going to shelve it for a long while then since you gave it up.

  6. Kurobana says:

    “Not just any Arab, mind you—a desert Arab.” LOL!
    My book group picked this for next month… might skip it unless I have nothing better to read. Thank you!

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