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by James Gunn
Tor, $26.99, 217pp
Published: March 2016

This is a sequel to Transcendental, which I have not, unfortunately, read.  I could tell that I would have appreciated this story more had I done so first; but, fortunately, this story stands well on its own.

Riley and Asha came together in Transcendental; Asha was part of a generational spaceship that was captured by aliens.  At some point, the humans were able to escape bringing with them clues to make interstellar travel possible for humans.  I don’t exactly know how Riley joined her but he has a history of being a mercenary.  At the end of Transcendental, they had found a transcendence machine which transported each of them.  The concept of the machine borrows heavily from a Star Trek transporter – at the point of departure, it breaks down and destroys the organism and then completely rebuilds it at the arrival point.  What’s cool about this machine is the rebuilt organism is perfect:  all scars, diseases, disabilities are removed and the whole body is better than the original.  Transcendence appears to be a way to advance the species by removing flaws and making everyone better; but, they discover to their dismay that it is not the grand solution they imagined.  The original inventors of the transcendence machine are gone from the universe; no one knows who or what they were.  The transcendence machines had been totally forgotten until the humans discovered them and their use.

Riley awakes in an abandoned station, dusty from eons of neglect.  He finally finds his way out and into a primitive jungle where he befriends a local native.  He escapes in a million-year-old spaceship that may have belonged to the species that created the transcendental machine.  He realizes Asha must have been transported to a different location – somewhere in the billions of planets.  His greatest urgency, after finding water and food, is to find her.  In addition to being his love, together they have the best chance to bring enlightenment to the Galactic Federation – mired down in eons of this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it.  The humans, newly arrived in the congregation, are very vulnerable.  The most apparent danger is the Pedia – a system-wide computer system that may very well be sentient.  The unifying thread in the universe is that an advanced society eventually builds their own version of a benevolent computer system that controls everything.  Absolutely everyone relies on their Pedia to tell the truth and manage their society but Riley and Asha become aware that the Pedia lies…and it’s quite likely that the Pedia has tried repeatedly to kill each of them. But the real questions are what exactly is the Pedia, are they all linked and is it/they sentient?

Asha finds herself considered a goddess on the planet on which she awoke.  Forced to take a consort, she eventually finds transport off the planet.  On her journey, she becomes aware that there is an underground of humans who live off the grid – no contact or dependence on the Pedia and they have aspirations of rebellion.  She also figures out that the Pedia is fully aware of their actions and that their rebellion would be counterproductive to hers and Riley’s plans.  But as a prisoner of a group of Anons, she is challenged to continue her journey to meet Riley without injuring any of them or alerting the Pedia.

You would think that finding one person in billions of planets, not to mention the billions of billions of beings, would be impossible.  But with their enhanced mental abilities, they are able to deduce the most likely point of encounter; a conclusion reached by both of them.  So, thru some relatively minor adventures, they are able to finally come together.  The conclusion is actually another starting point and the author obviously intends to continue this series.

The plotting was complex but easily absorbed as the author switched between points-of-view for Asha and Riley.  The characters were interesting but not terribly detailed as the author used only 217 pages.  There was, thankfully, no boring expositions or unnecessary setting detail.  The worldbuilding was probably the main victim in such a short book.  The conflict was somewhat muted and did not create much tension for this reader.  But I did enjoy the ride and I liked some of the ideas brought up about how and why the Pedia viewed its raison d’etre.  But I think more could have been done.  While often a spare-prosed book is a welcome alternative to epics, it suffers from lack of connection to the reader.  I may check back for the sequel to this one if the memory of this story lingers.  ~~  Catherine Book

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