Rating: 9.5 (out of 10)
[Warning: if you have not read Noumenon, which this novel is a sequel to, there will be spoilers here]
At the end of Marina J. Lostetter’s brilliant debut novel Noumenon, Convoy Seven returned to an earth several millennia removed from the society and culture that founded its original mission – to investigate the seemingly unnatural behavior of the variable star designated LQ Pyx – and were dismayed to learn that the people of Earth no longer considered exploring the stars a worthy pursuit. Consequently, the members of the convoy decided to be true to their purpose and, no longer under obligation to the descendants of their forebears, set out to discover who created the unfinished structure around LQ Pyx, and if possible, to complete it themselves. Noumenon was a spirited and ambitious work of golden-to-silver age sci-fi redux, repurposing and combining popular science fictional elements like the Generation Ship (Orphans of the Sky, The Enemy Stars), the psychological effects of time dilation (The Forever War, Tau Zero), and the Big Dumb Object (Rendezvous with Rama, Ringworld). It was also a perfect balance of hard sci-fi’s emphasis on scientific detail and heroic problem solving, and social sci-fi’s speculations about human behavior.
While Noumenon left us in the dark regarding the nature of the megastructure at LQ Pyx, the promise of convoy seven’s return trip made the prospect of a sequel enticing. Fully aware of the state of anticipation she left us in, Lostetter opts for delayed gratification – Noumenon Infinity doesn’t kick off with convoy seven’s journey back to LQ Pyx, instead taking us back in time to the early years of the Planet United Consortium to follow the story of Convoy Twelve. Convoy Twelve vanishes while experimenting with subdimensional travel and is assumed lost or destroyed. In fact, they are jettisoned to a place and time so far away from the 22nd century Earth they departed it’s a wonder they don’t lose all hope. They are discovered and pursued by an alien craft, and eventually are given no choice but to make first contact. The aliens are terrifying and far more advanced than their human counterparts, but at times seem well meaning, if also somewhat aloof. And they know something about the convoy but won’t let on what it is.
From there the novel’s chapters alternate between the narratives of convoys twelve and seven. While the linear progress of convoy twelve’s plight remains immediate, the trajectory of convoy seven’s narrative follows the pattern established in Noumenon, with huge leaps forward in time picking up the story generations removed from the previous chapter. Differing interpretations of seven’s mission leads to a schism among the convoy, between those who want to follow the map retrieved from the Nest – which they believe will lead them to the builders of the LQ Pyx megastructure – and those who believe their sole purpose is to return to LQ Pyx and complete the project their mission was created for. After some conflict and deliberation, the convoy separates into two groups, with the hope that the splinter group of map followers will one day, many generations down the line, rejoin their sister ships at LQ Pyx.
To reveal much more of what happens in Noumenon Infinity would be a betrayal; at this point, Lostetter’s ability to innovate and astonish appears inexhaustible, and I hate ruining surprises. The above plot descriptions, busy as they might seem, are a woefully inadequate representation of what actually happens in the novel, which outpaces Noumenon in scope and scale by several degrees.
One of the common, and most cynical, tropes of generation ship stories is how the passage of time obscures the origins of its society, often to the point of delusion and ignorance. Taken together, Noumenon and Noumenon Infinity acknowledge how the practical concerns that give birth to social groups can become mythologized over time, but that those societies develop, organize, and evolve in accordance with their necessities, which can change frequently. Myths of origin, however idealistic or arcane they may seem, are just as likely to have material value to an ever-changing culture, to be a unifying and energizing presence, and not necessarily reducible to fundamentalist zeal.
Noumenon was my favorite science fiction novel of 2017 and the encore is even more thrilling and satisfying. Noumenon Infinity weaves in and out of the lives of these disparate human civilizations, discovering the shocking but strangely understandable ways in which they emerge from strife and conflict and imperative to adjust to their conditions in ingenious ways; it’s a relentlessly exciting, wondrous, unnerving, and ultimately sublime work of science fiction.