Review: Noumenon

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Sometimes, a book or song or movie will come along at just the right time and strike a resounding chord. Noumenon hit that sweet spot for me. On my blog, I’ve been thinking about generation ships. Suddenly, the stars aligned, and Harper Voyager gave me the opportunity to review Noumenon. It was SF love at first read. Seriously, halfway through chapter one, I knew this book would be at least an eight out of ten for me unless things went terribly, terribly wrong. Marina J. Lostetter, however, kept her bearings and delivered on the promises made in chapter one. Fans of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet should check out this debut.

In Noumenon, a united Earth creates seven generation ship convoys for scientific missions. This book follows the final convoy, which is tasked to investigate a variable star a long, long way from Earth. Ms. Lostetter tells the tale of that journey in an impressive debut novel. Harper Voyager provided me an ARC in exchange for an honest review, and I came out the big winner in this deal.

TL;DR: Entertaining mosaic novel filled with memorable characters will have you eagerly awaiting a sequel. Highly recommended.

From the Publisher:

With nods to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series and the real science of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, a touch of Hugh Howey’s Wool, and echoes of Octavia Butler’s voice, a powerful tale of space travel, adventure, discovery, and humanity that unfolds through a series of generational vignettes.

In 2088, humankind is at last ready to explore beyond Earth’s solar system. But one uncertainty remains: Where do we go?

Astrophysicist Reggie Straifer has an idea. He’s discovered an anomalous star that appears to defy the laws of physics, and proposes the creation of a deep-space mission to find out whether the star is a weird natural phenomenon, or something manufactured.

The journey will take eons. In order to maintain the genetic talent of the original crew, humankind’s greatest ambition—to explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy— is undertaken by clones. But a clone is not a perfect copy, and each new generation has its own quirks, desires, and neuroses. As the centuries fly by, the society living aboard the nine ships (designated Convoy Seven) changes and evolves, but their mission remains the same: to reach Reggie’s mysterious star and explore its origins—and implications.

A mosaic novel of discovery, Noumenon—in a series of vignettes—examines the dedication, adventure, growth, and fear of having your entire world consist of nine ships in the vacuum of space. The men and women, and even the AI, must learn to work and live together in harmony, as their original DNA is continuously replicated and they are born again and again into a thousand new lives. With the stars their home and the unknown their destination, they are on a voyage of many lifetimes—an odyssey to understand what lies beyond the limits of human knowledge and imagination.

Comparisons to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (LWSAP) are apt but also a bit reductive. Plot-wise, this book is relatively straight forward. A convoy of ships is built to travel to an object to investigate and learn. The plot is the journey, but it’s not the point. Exploring Big Questions about humanity confined to buildings flying through the void for centuries is the point. And if we are ever to actually attempt a generation ship project, these are questions that need to be asked. Covering subjective millennia on Earth and subjective centuries on the ship, the linear plot and mosaic structure reinforce the time span. As readers, we dip into significant moments along the way.

Unlike LWSAP, the characters in Noumenon are not constant. Sort of. Since the ships’ journey lasts much longer than a single human lifetime, the characters that start the journey will not see the end. A significant amount of passengers’ entire lifespan take place between earth and the star. Therefore, if the reader wants to see the end of the journey, the author has to make a choice to have character lifetimes extended by some means or have different characters at the end of the novel from those at the beginning. Ms. Lostetter chose to use clones that stick with the name of their original but add a version number. There are excellent in-world explanations for this, and I loved that the author thought through these details. To care this much about world-building, the author shows her love for this story but runs a risk of world-building-itis. If you’re an SFF fan, I’m sure you’ve run across the author who is so much in love with his/her own world that everything else falls to the wayside. This is not the case with Noumenon. World-building serves the story, not vice versa. While the characters are not the same chapter to chapter, they are at once familiar enough to maintain continuity of the plot but distinct enough to be their own individual. They are genetic clones but not cloned personalities.

The setting for most of the novel is interior of the ships. I didn’t get a clear view of the ships interior. Setting wasn’t a strong point for this story, but it doesn’t suffer for it. There are multiple ships in each convoy, but I couldn’t tell you the difference between them outside of their function. One of the distinct parts of the ship that I remember is that each passenger cabin has a window thanks to tubes and mirrors. This little bit of world building was a speed bump because it seems unnecessarily complicated for the ship’s engineers and builders, but also due to their mode of travel, it serves no purpose. They travel through inky blackness, no stars even. This led me to pay attention of the practicality of the ships, and they don’t seem entirely practical. Why multiple ships? It isn’t a redundancy because each ship serves a purpose. One is a storage ship; one is a medical ship; one is the biome ship; and one is where most of the living is done. I like the idea of multiple ships as a way to maintain the sanity of the crew because it gives them someplace to go. But the impracticality of unattached shuttles between the ships was a hitch. None of my concerns affect the story; nor do they stop me from enjoying it.

In a time where grimdark fantasy is popular and somehow considered realistic, this novel goes against the flow in that it is inherently optimistic. We don’t get much about Earth during the time of launch, but it’s utopian. Multiple societies come together to create an amazing project dedicated to advancing scientific knowledge. As others have said, utopian doesn’t mean without conflict. Humans are still human, and drama, conflict, and misunderstanding are part of the whole deal. There’s plenty of that here to make a compelling read.

For a novel with only one character that makes it from start to finish, the strength of Noumenon is the characters. Each part of the mosaic has to introduce, get the reader to connect to, and tell a story with new characters. Not an easy task, but add to the fact that each chapter has to add to and support the larger overall narrative. Noumenon does this. I cared about these characters, and I wanted to see them succeed on their mission. Their journey – in world – is one of advancing knowledge, but in our world, their journey is a thought experiment of a closed civilization evolving over the years. Both the best and the worst of humanity is present, which makes for great stories. I loved this book; I give it an eight out of ten.

Highly recommended.

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