REVIEW: “The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story” by James Gunn

Review of James Gunn, “The Final Commandment: Trey’s Story”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 26-32 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

A cautionary tale and a twist on a rampaging AI story.

In Trey’s world – Ourworld – humans evolved along similar physical and technological lines as humans on Earth. This included the creation of increasingly intelligent machines, which eventually achieved sapience. Except, that access to this supreme intelligence does not guarantee human happiness or peace on land or in the sea.

This piece was more speculative than the previous stories in this series by Gunn. I particularly liked the machines’ co-dependent relationship with humans in this piece. Often AIs are depicted as free to run and be themselves as soon as they achieve sentience, with humans only an annoyance or something that’s getting in the way. Not the case here. Trey and the other machines have helped and been used by humans in different ways across their combined history.

The image of Trey with the two lovers coiled safe inside is a lovely one. There’s a nice symbology there about human-created machines carrying their creators, womb-like, into the stars.

The layered inevitable tragedies leading up to the conclusion also built quite well, though I found it slowed through the middle around the evolution of the sea people.

However, as with most of Gunn’s tie-in stories I find the lack of context around key elements of the world found in the novel, particularly what the Transcendental Machine is and why all of these species think it can do the things they want. Because of this I found the ending a little less satisfying and uplifting than it could have been for a stand-alone piece.

REVIEW: “The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story” by James Gunn

Review of James Gunn, “The Seeds of Consciousness: 4107’s Story”, Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February (2018): 19-32 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

As a species, Floran dreams were rooted to the soil; their nightmares were filled with the dread of being separated from it. But their will was stronger than their fears…

Up there as my favourite of Gunn’s series of tie-in stories for his novel Transcendental.

4107 is a Floran, a sentient plant species. The Florans have evolved over generations, growing from blissful cycles of growing in the sun and dying back to the soil, to overcoming both native and insterstellar threats, and finally reaching out to the stars on their own.

I really enjoyed the mythological feel of this piece. It feels like a creation story, except it goes far beyond creation. The long, collective memories of the Florans, reaching back to the first sprouting, and the generally long cycles Floran history has taken allows for this gradual unfolding of the Floran’s evolution. And an evolution it is! Responding to different adverse circumstances which force them to adapt and respond in order to survive which, in turn, drives their advancement in thought, technology and perspective. All the while the Florans retain a unique perspective, intelligence and problem-solving approach built from their worldview and cultural priorities. This is an alternate evolution trajectory, in some ways familiar and in other ways quite alien to a human (‘meat’) perspective and it is fascinating to watch.

As this is a background story to an existing novel, universe and character this piece may be a bit “infodumpy” or lacking in story for some. It does have an alternate history feel to it and, while I didn’t find that this hindered my enjoyment of it, it might not work for some readers.

Novel tie-ins can be tough to pull off, I think in part because you don’t want to give away the novel’s trajectory, but there needs to be enough of a conclusion to be satisfying to the reader. This story achieved that, bringing us a full history of Floran civilisation up to a set point before showing them boldly heading towards their next era. I liked that the story wrapped up in the middle of the Floran’s full story, showing us where they wanted to go, but leaving it to the reader (perhaps in the novel) to find out whether they achieved this. The ending scene was a particular highlight for me, bringing us back to a familiar cultural perspective and environment with humour and hinting at the next steps for 4107 and the Florans’ journey in the universe.


REVIEW: “Love and Dearth and the Star that Shall Not Be Named: Kom’s Story” by James Gunn

Review of James Gunn, “Love and Dearth and the Star that Shall Not Be Named: Kom’s Story”, Asimov’s Science Fiction November/December (2017): 118-125 — Purchase Here. Reviewed by Kiera Lesley.

This story is part of a series of tie-in pieces for James Gunn’s Transcendental trilogy of novels. Each tells the backstory of one character in the novels and how they came to seek the Transcendental Machine central to the novels.

A nice angle on a first contact story. Kom, a Sirian, encounters a human named Sam floating in an escape capsule near the star that his people hold to be the place where paradise for the dead is located. In learning to communicate with Sam, Kom describes the history, creation myths, culture and procreating practices of his planet and species. These conversations with Sam prompt Kom to think differently about these things and reconsider his life trajectory.

I really liked the mythology of this piece. Kom’s tales of the star that shall not be named and the beliefs attached to it by his people – the Ranians – are beautiful. I also enjoyed Kom and Sam’s conversations and the internal revelations this invoked in Kom. The shifts between recollections, current events, and creation myths are handled well, too.

However, as someone not familiar with the Transcendental novels I found the turn the story takes at the end to tie-in to the novel universe a bit abrupt. Where Kom was being sent to, why this was important, and Kom’s motivations for his quest for transcendence and the Transcendental Machine happened fast – within paragraphs – and weren’t clear to me. This left me unsatisfied with the ending. I suspect this is unlikely to be the case for a reader familiar with Gunn’s novels, but it did detract from this piece’s ability to stand on its own for me.