Not A Review: Transcendental – James Gunn

Warning: This is NOT A REVIEW. This is an epic sized rant-fest. Why? Because I didn’t finish this book, but the publisher sent it to me. I gave it my best college try (which I address at the end of the review) so I’m putting up my overall feelings anyway. I apologize for the sarcastic tone. Sometimes a girl has to get things out of her system. I’m sure you understand.

About the Book

Transcendental, an epic, high-concept space opera, is a Canterbury Tales of the far future in which beings from many planets hurtle across the universe to uncover the secrets of the legend of Transcendentalism. Riley, a veteran of interstellar war,  however, 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. As the ship speeds through space, the voyage is marred by violence and betrayal, making it clear that Riley is not the only one of the ship’s passengers who is not the spiritual seeker they all claim to be.

As tensions rise, Riley realizes that the ship’s journey is less like the Canterbury Tales and more like a harrowing, deadly voyage on a ship of fools. Looking for allies, he becomes friendly with a mysterious passenger named Asha, who, like so many others on the ship, is more than she appears. But while she professes to be just another pilgrim, he comes to realize that like him, she is keeping secrets could be the key to Riley’s assignment, or might make him question everything he thought he knew about Transcendentalism and his mission to stop it.

This long-awaited novel is a grand space adventure of exploration, intrigue, redemption, and the universal spirit that unites all beings.  This is a real departure for Gunn, a novel of grand scope and high concept, a capstone to the career of this Grand Master of science fiction.

304 pages (Hardcover)
Published on August 27, 2013
Published by Tor

This book was provided for my review by the publisher.


I hate to admit it, but I couldn’t finish Transcendental. I got about 100 pages into it before I admitted defeat. The truth is, when I got my hands on this book, I was beyond excited. James Gunn is a name that packs some serious punch. He’s a well-known author and that kind of name recognition carries some weight. It makes geeky people like myself get really excited.

Then I read my 100 pages, and my smile started to fade.

The problems with Transcendental are numerous. First, the lack of any real history creates an automatic divide between the reader and the story. There’s nothing there to care about. The reader is thrust into a situation with a bunch of pilgrims, each of whom are absolutely (almost unbelievably and too-perfectly) otherworldly in appearance. They are traveling somewhere for some purpose after some hinted-at violence of some sort or another (notice, lots of vague hints here, because “vague” is what fills up a lot of the first bit of this book). It feels so incredibly contrived that it’s unbelievable. There isn’t any history for me to wonder about or connect with. Instead, I’m just thrown into a pulpy mess of a situation without any real direction. I tend to lose patience with that sort of thing fairly quickly.

The aliens, as I mentioned, are all incredibly otherworldly. This is something I expect from space opera type books. The issue is that the creatures are so alien and otherworldly that they almost seem to be weird just for the sake of being weird. That’s fine, and it can be fun for things to be weird, but in science fiction, as well as with anything else, the weird needs to be reigned in a bit so the reader can believe it. There should be some sort of a system the reader can understand, or some universal laws they can use to mentally come to grips with the world/universe/whatever.

The absence of some sort of universal structure, mixed with the lack of history, is probably what made the alien life so unbelievable for me. There’s an alien flower, an alien weasel, an alien who is referred to as the “coffin alien,” and numerous others. While this is all very SciFi, the creatures fold under any real scrutiny. These issues mix together into some horrible stew that just pushed me over the edge. For example, the main character Riley decides to enter some sort of protective agreement with an alien, as all of the pilgrims are in some vague sort of danger. That’s fine, but when you really think about it, neither Riley, nor this alien knows anything about each other. They barely share the same language. Then they form two different teams of people (none of whom know any of the others, and half of them can’t talk to the other half, so where’s the trust? Motivation? Bueler?) and somehow they all decide to band together and protect each other. It makes no sense to me. Gunn makes such a huge point of making these aliens look so, well, alien, but they don’t act alien. Hell, they don’t even act believably within the (vague) context of the situation.

Then you add all the cliché points, like the mysterious woman (who is, evidently, cat-like. If my senses are correct, there will probably be some sexual tension surrounding her, as she seems to be the only woman in sniffing range of the plot), the Arab-looking captain who is all business and never seems to reveal enough information, the protagonist who is “under cover” (and an epic badass), the aliens that are so alien that they just must be believable (/sarcasm font). Top it off with some very poorly edited writing and an incredibly lackluster, world with a pulpy and directionless plot and you have an epic, space opera sized mess.

I hate math, and one of the reasons why is because I hit a wall where I think, “Why should I care?” I don’t care how many apples Johnny has. I’m not going to eat them, carry them, or buy them. He can count his own apples, thankyouverymuch. I had the same reaction to Transcendental. I just didn’t care. After 100 pages, I couldn’t even pretend to care. I couldn’t fake it. I reached that point that I reach with story problems where my brain just turns off and starts drooling. Maybe I’m being a bit unfair. Maybe it got better after 100 pages. I’m sorry to say, with a name like James Gunn, I expect a lot and this didn’t deliver.

This might just be the wrong fit for me. I have full faith that somewhere out there is a person who will pick up this book, read it, and think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. They’ll probably enjoy counting Johnny’s apples, too. I envy them, whoever they are. If I had that sort of mind, I probably would have had better grades in college.

10 Responses

  • This is actually a very good review despite you saying the opposite! Critical and sometimes negative reviews are almost always as useful as glowing ones! Thanks!

    • Aww, I appreciate you saying that. I always feel incredibly guilty when I write negative stuff. No matter what I think of a book, it took a lot of effort to write it and I hate poo-pooing that. Then again, I have to be honest….

  • Sheila

    You’ve got the url to a different James Gunn up there. I clicked on it because I couldn’t remember which books he’s written. The James Gunn you’ve linked to is a film person.

  • Loved this! I tend to prefer rogue characters like Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds, those that rely on wit and cunning rather than strength. 🙂

  • I think this pretty clearly lays out your problems with the book and does not seem unfair or even “not a review.” You read to the point you could not read anymore and you have a number of reasons why that was the result. I appreciate the candor and clarity.

  • This is exactly why I maintain that DNF reviews “or not-a-reviews” are needed in the blogging world. The reasons a person doesn’t finish a book are just as valid as the reason a person does finish it, and like-minded readers can save themselves the trouble if they hear in advance that there’s a good chance they won’t like it. Perfectly understandable to me, and I appreciate the honesty here.

    • I appreciate that. I have a hard time justifying “not a reviewing” books that I struggle with. I feel insanely guilty because, in all reality, no matter how I feel about the book in question, I know the author put a lot of work and soul into it.

  • I prefer these kinds of reviews myself. I’m also a reviewer and have had reviews “removed” or slightly edited so as to not offend. I loved Gunn’s The Listeners and his massive Road to Science Fiction, but this novel fails for all the reasons listed above–not the least of which is the lazy strategy of writing another Canterbury Tales. Each “tale” slows the book down horribly. The big “reveal” isn’t anything to write home about, either. It’s going to win all the awards, because that’s what fans in sf do at the World Con: they give Hugos to the great writers rather than the great stories. (Why Ender’s Game triumphed, I’ll never know since 1985 was such a fertile year.) Still, great review. Right on target. Much appreciated.

  • Sean

    Glad I’m not alone – I was thinking the reviews for this piece of sophomoric trash were the result of some crazy bet at a CON drinking party. I think I got a bit further than you, I endured the endless Dorian brain-dump searching for context, but it just got worse. I found your site googling to see if the jacket reviews were a hoax…
    BwB, you did yourself a favor by ditching. I’m going have to look at more of your reviews since our sensibilities agree.

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