The novel “Transcendental” by James Gunn was published for the first time in 2014. It’s the first book in the Transcendental trilogy.
Riley is a veteran of a war fought by humanity after the contact with an interstellar civilization altered the balance among the species that compose it. He joins a pilgrimage aboard the starship Geoffrey that aims to seek transcendence, an idea that attracts sentient individuals of all species and perhaps may be real somewhere in the cosmos.
From the beginning, the journey is marked by acts of violence with murders and sabotage. Riley must try to figure out who, on the starship Geoffrey, could become his ally and who could represent a danger. The ship’s captain is an old acquaintance of his, but Riley doesn’t know if he can trust him. Riley himself has his own secrets.
“Transcendental” presents a future in which humanity started traveling among the stars encountering alien species that long ago organized themselves into an interstellar civilization. After an interstellar war, a veteran joins a pilgrimage that turns out to be very different from what it initially seemed.
Between murders and sabotage, Riley listens to the stories of other pilgrims in a structure inspired by “The Canterbury Tales”. However, the pilgrims’ stories make up only a few chapters in the midst of an important plot concerning the search for transcendence. To be clear, this novel is not “Hyperion”!
James Gunn is a veteran writer to say the least, so he knows how to perfectly use all the mechanisms necessary to maintain a good pace in the development of the plot and the reader’s attention. “Transcendental” is not exactly an action novel, but from the beginning the various mysteries around the characters and around the prophet of transcendence offer reasons of interest for the main plot and for the the pilgrims’ individual stories. In many ways those are the stories of their species and offer elements about the galactic civilization. Revelations about the characters with various twists form an important part of the plot’s development.
The structure of “Transcendental” initially penalizes the characters. Many of them have secrets, including Riley, and that doesn’t help their development because what’s stated about any of them can be contradicted at any time by a revelation. In the maze of lies and half-truths, it’s difficult to understand who these characters really are, especially the alien ones.
“Transcendental” has its own ending, but James Gunn had from the start the idea of writing a trilogy. This novel is not very long and presents many elements of this fictional universe in a sketchy way or with just a little more development. That would make little sense for a standalone novel as it leaves room for many developments in the sequel to a series. This leaves a feeling of incompleteness at the end of the first book with the need to read its sequels hoping to learn more about all of its elements.
Reading the ending of “Transcendental”, the expectation is that the sequels will be very different. The fictional universe presented in this novel seems intriguing even if quite brutal. In my opinion, the mix of various sub-genres, and not only science fiction ones, makes it worth reading with the awareness of the need to read the entire trilogy to have a complete story.