Noumenon is Marina J. Lostetter’s debut nove, but you wouldn’t know it by the ambition—or the skill—it displays. She manages to weave a tale spanning over two millennia, with engaging characters and a heart-racing plot, and never misses a beat.
At the open, astrophysicist Reggie Straifer discovers an anomaly in space while working on his Ph.D., and the desire to investigate its origins becomes the impetus behind a deep space mission that will take eons to complete. Clones are used to allow the genetic line of the original crew—specifically selected for optimal mission success—to continue manning the multiple space craft involved. Their focus and dedication must remain on the mission, even as the society floating through space shifts and changes.
This novel is a perfectly paced roller coaster ride of emotion and intrigue. Because of the vast scope of this novel, Lostetter tells the story in vignettes, and approach that allows each section to be packed with incident. But she also allows time for the characters to shine—despite being clones, each iteration feels wholly fresh and new.
But perhaps my favorite character is not human at all, but the ship’s AI, termed ICC, short for Inter Convoy Computing. We see it learn and evolve alongside the society and humans it is there to assist (Kim Stanley Robinson pulled off something similar—and similarly satisfying—with the AI narrator of Aurora). Lostetter keeps the focus on the inquisitive and hopeful elements of humanity in the sections told from the AI’s perspective. Unlike a lot of stories featuring computational consciousnesses, this being is never reduced to either “I wish I were human” or “I can be better than human” paradigms. ICC views itself as another crew member tasked with ensuring the success of the mission, neither better nor beneath the humans. It is a thought-provoking approach to AI to be sure.
Lostetter also pulls off the challenge of developing a clone society spread across multiple millennia. Each iteration of the same genetic material feels wholly unique, facing a completely new set of social strains. It is like watching a small nation fast-forward through its own history, evolving and adapting along the way. Many of the roller coaster crests come when the clones hit a new social condition I didn’t see coming, and my stomach dropped more than once as the foundations of society collapsed and reformed beneath them, as the depths of desperation and fear caused them to turn on one another and repeat sins of Earth’s past.
The plot is a swift-moving ocean current that will sweep you up, envelop you, and not let you go until you’ve reached the end, finally tossing you ashore, rattled from the experience. I read it in one sitting, because I had to know: what this clone society would find when they reached that distant star, and what terrible sins they would commit along the way. I had to know it all.
Noumenon is one of those iceberg reads. It might look like one thing on the surface—in this case, space opera—but there is a vast, unseen expanse hidden below. Do you want exploration into the unknown? You got it. Do you want to a complex investigation of human nature? Noumenon has it in spades. You want to forget to breathe here and there? Check and double check.
And yet, despite all the book attempts, it never feels like too much. Balance is maintained,and the story never tips over the edge, the victim of its own ambition. Lostetter keeps a close connection between the reader and the story, expansive as it is. Because we only get the brief vignettes, a few per generation, we aren’t with a specific character for very long. Instead, you find yourself building connections with a large family over generations, intimately connected to the journey that is their mission.