Last year I gave a qualified thumbs-up to James Gunn’s Transcendental, which as I noted in the review, read like a mix of old guard sci-fi, The Canterbury Tales, Ship of Fools, and And Then There Were None. I absolutely loved (seriously, loved) the Chaucerian aspect, which were a series of stories embedded in the larger narrative that explained how various individuals — human and alien — ended up aboard the spaceship on a pilgrimage in search of the rumored Transcendental Machine (TM). The rest of the novel, however, I found far less successful. Now Gunn is back with the sequel, Transgalactic, and unfortunately, those Chaucerian elements are long gone and what we’re left with is more of the old-time sci-fi plotting and characterization, leaving the sequel falling well short of its predecessor. I suggest skimming through my earlier review for a sense of the backdrop and characters.
Transgalactic picks up pretty immediately after Transcendental, with our main characters Riley and Asha having been transported to two different planets by the TM (really a seriously ancient matter-transmitter/transporter that, as a lucky side-effect, removes imperfections, leaving one more or better evolved once they’ve traveled through it). Asha ends up on a decently advanced (though no space flight) planet in the galaxy center, where she is welcomed as the prophesied “Chosen One,” thanks to her stepping out of the sacred machine in the city center. Riley, on the other hand, finds himself on a planet whose civilization — think intelligent dinosaurs that would have evolved had the asteroid not struck the Earth — has long regressed to pre-industrial level. Fortuitously (really fortuitously), each, joined by a single native inhabitant companion, finds a means off their respective planet and heads toward the Galactic Federation to spread the news of the TM. As we follow their separate paths we learn more about the Federation, the human-Federation war of recent history, and the role of the “Pedia’s,” the AIs that run so much of the Federation.
As mentioned, there’s a real old-guard feel to much of the story, from the bureaucratic and stale Galactic Federation to the upstart “won’t be restrained” humans that threaten to shake things up, to the ancient pre-Federation mystery race and their remnant uber-advanced technology, to the “can-we-trust-them” AIs. Depending on one’s reading past, there’s a good chance you’ll fondly recall your Asimov, Norton, Farmer, Vogt, Stapleton (particularly the focus on evolution), and the like. These echoes don’t simply arise in the plot elements but in the tone and style as well.
Tonally, Transgalactic is swimming against today’s dystopic and/or grim current by presenting a meaningful striving for something good and providing a sense of hope and optimism if Asha and Riley succeed in their attempt to uplift species through the TM and also replace the creaky old Federation with something better, more vibrant, more “nourishing.”
Stylistically, Transgalactic, at just over 200 pages, has an old-time economy to it thanks to sparse description and dialogue, quickly arising problems quickly solved, and scenes that come and go at great speed. There’s no dawdling over details of place or physical action, little deep introspection, not a lot of lengthy wrestling with issues or interactions. The upside to this is that the novel moves along speedily. The downside is things happen a bit too easily, characters breeze through problematic issues (for instance, the two natives should, it seems, evince much more of a sense of dislocation thanks to the revelations they’re presented about their worlds), the reader is often told something rather than shown it, and the language tends to be effective but a bit flat.
That same sense of flatness applies to the characters (another typical old guard element), as neither Riley nor Asha really come alive on the page. And while I was told that they were fundamentally transformed from run-of-the-mill humanity due to their passage through the TM, which had granted them enhanced clarity of mind, self-healing properties, and other improvements, I never truly felt that they were anything but normal. In other words, their distinction never felt distinctive. Meanwhile the native characters, each of whom gets a nicely done POV segment, at least, feel more like representative types than out and out characters.
I confess that Transgalactic was more than a little disappointing. I felt I’d seen much of the plot before, the characters and writing were flatter than I prefer, and the whole thing felt like it was skimming too quickly only on the surface of events and characters. But Gunn isn’t done with the story yet; a third one is clearly on the way. And given that book one, Transcendental, had such gloriously captivating sections, I’ll hold off on judging the entire trilogy in hopes that the third book is the charm.