Rating: 9.3 (out of 10)
Noumenon is the best Big Dumb Object novel to arrive in some time. Lostetter merges quite a few classic tropes in her debut novel, but Noumenon is much more than just a nostalgia trip for lovers of old school sci-fi. The plot concerns the discovery of a star that exhibits some very strange behavior, and a generation ship made of scientists sent to investigate it. The difference between this and other generation ships is that the successive generations are made up of exact genetic clones of the original crew; also, the FTL drive used to propel the ship has a time dilation effect that cause a few hundred years to go by on the ship, while thousands pass on earth – meaning they have no idea what will happen to Earth society and culture over the course of the journey, and when contact with Earth inexplicably ends they can only guess at what will be there, and whether they will be accepted, when they finally return.
There are nods in every direction for sci-fi lovers to enjoy – from Clarke to Haldeman to Poul Anderson and on through more recent authors like Neal Stephenson. But Noumenon is no mere pastiche: its scope is as grand as any written by those authors, but its architecture is quite unique to Lostetter’s project. Rather than follow one long plot or choose a single clone line as the book’s “protagonist”, Noumenon is structured as a series of vignettes that continually jump forward in time to different characters at different points over the course the journey – the one there and then back again – and tied together by the thoughts and experiences of the AI tasked with overseeing the mission. The mysterious star they are investigating is the macguffin, but the journey itself is the point of the novel, a sociological experiment that goes right as often as it goes wrong, in some instances terrifyingly so.
What Lostetter gets right about classically structured SF is that while it’s not SF without the science, it’s not worth reading if it’s not about the people affected by it. Lostetter got the scope of her project right, but the intimacy with which she depicts the smaller human moments amid the grander events is where it excels. The minimal amount of space she devotes to the exploration of the mysterious star is a little disappointing, but the ending appears to set up a sequel that promises greater detail about the discovery. Noumenon is an outstanding and singular achievement, and is likely to become a classic in its own right.