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Transcendental
by James Gunn
Tor, $16.99, 302pp
Published: September 2014

This novel by a Grand Master is like a science fiction mashup version of the medieval classics The Canterbury Tales and The Ship of Fools. The hero is an assassin with an artificial intelligence implant in his brain that reminds him of his secret mission on a starship full of pilgrims. They seek the planet of the Transcendental Machine, a mythical object that may transform sentient creatures into spiritually-evolved super beings. Many of the pilgrims, galactic aliens of varied species, have a secret agenda to kill the first prophet of the machine, who is rumored to be among them. Although the crew is human, the only other human passenger is a female pilgrim who is more competent than the hero (romance spoiler.) In the course of the voyage, some of the characters each get a chapter to tell their own life stories. Each of these stories and the overall quest give the author the opportunity to examine such issues as the meaning of life, evolution, love, and physical and spiritual transcendence. All told within the context of a life-or-death violent milieu in which you never know who may be killed next. Yet the characters still have time to speculate on each other’s motivations and possible tactics. Highly recommended if you want to see how a Grand Master can combine thoughtfulness and feeling with action. ~~ Mike Griffin

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