“The convoy’s gonna go to this star, see. … But for me, it will always be unknowable. It’s real, but unreachable. That doesn’t make it a literal noumenon, but it … it feels fitting to me. There are things I can never know, things humanity can never know — or, hell, maybe I’m wrong and nothing is unknowable, nothing unmeasurable. But that just means the noumenal world is fleeting, a vast frontier.”
She nodded to herself. “Noumenon. Okay, I think I like it.”
Marina J. Lostetter’s Noumenon presents a classic hard scifi narrative. In it, generations of scientists dedicate their lives to a cross-universe journey of scientific discovery. On Earth, Reggie Straifer discovers an anomalous star and proposes a grand mission to uncover its mysteries. When his proposal is accepted, it becomes one of twelve Planet United Missions – globally-funded scientific missions to the stars. In preparation for the trip, scientists from all over the world are tested and (if they measure up) cloned to preserve the “genetic talent of the original crew”. It is these clones, along with a unique artificial intelligence, that will staff the ships of Reggie’s mission, Noumenon, on its eons-long journey there and back again.
Normally, stories based on any variety of the “personality traits and career skills are genetically determined” theme leave me completely cold. In Noumenon, Lostetter sidestepped many of the normal pitfalls these stories fall into and ultimately, in my mind, this theme did not detract from my enjoyment of the book. I would say, however, that it is definitely Noumenon’s weakest characteristic. It is important to note that the book does a good job of acknowledging many sides of the “genetically determined” debate, and in doing so presents compelling narratives and some of the book’s most challenging philosophy.
The philosophy presented in Noumenon is really wonderful: varied, robust, and well-suited to the story it is servicing. Unlike many hard scifi philosophies, Noumenon doesn’t feel as though it’s a vehicle for the author’s philosophy, but instead feels as though the philosophy is present to serve the narrative and to humanize the characters and their grand mission. The philosophy here is presented as that of the characters, and it evolves and changes as they do. I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I read hard scifi for the philosophy and that I view scifi as one of our best resources to examine the “what it means to be human” question. Lostetter tackles those kinds of philosophical questions in a way that never feels like she’s preaching to the reader through the book. Instead, her characters are thinking, searching, human, and their exploration of Noumenon‘s philosophies is part of their lives.
Lostetter strikes an excellent balance in her prose, livening up what could otherwise be dry scientific explanation with believably human characters and exceptionally compelling events. Through Lostetter’s prose, we come to care about both the scientists and their mission. Each character’s relationship to the mission, which is literally the reason for their collective existence, is multidimensional and well worthy of this grand story. As the ships draw ever closer to their destination and the generations each have their shift at the helm, the relationship they feel (collectively and individually) to the mission impacts to a great extent their lives on the ship – and this evolving impact is one of the most believable aspects of Lostetter’s epic narrative construct.
All-in-all, Lostetter’s Noumenon is a wonderful epic narrative, exploring concepts of dedication and responsibility, individuality and community, and the cost and the worth of scientific enterprise.