Noumenon – Marina J. Lostetter

Review (Amazon): 

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.

My Review (spoilers, duh):

In a Nutshell: creative and amazing

This book is broken into two main parts – Resistance and Resilience, and within those parts, it’s broken into sections which jump ahead many years. It works really well with the story, but it is a bit unusual. I am going to detail it out pretty thoroughly so really, you should take my word and just read it because it’s awesome. The book has a sequel scheduled, and I know it will be a little while, so at that point, I want to have this to refer back to!!

The book begins in 2088 with Reggie, a PhD student who has discovered an unusual star, like it’s encrusted with something, and he is about to give a presentation to convince people that they should invest in getting a shuttle there to research it. The presentation goes well, mainly with the speculation that whatever is surrounding it was built, not naturally created, so the mission gets funded and is a go! During the party Reggie has to celebrate his mission, Noumenon, being a success, he meets a beautiful woman named Abigail and they hit it off.

2097: Noumenon’s team has assembled. Reggie, and his mentor Dr. McCloud (who pushed him to go to the summit in the first place) meet with the team. McCloud asks Reggie why he still hasn’t proposed to Abigail – it’s the mission. Everything was on hold because Reggie might have gone, but they have done their selection and he’s not on the list. We meet Nakamura Akane, the head of the ship design team, Donald Matheson, the head of the social systems (who hates Reggie’s implant “C” as obsolete and too chatty although Reggie has quite the attachment to her), and Dr. Sachta Dhiri, the head of strategy. They plan to have 9 ships with over a million people. How will they find that many volunteers? Matheson suggests clones. They choose a group of 100,000 people based on their skills and psychological strength to go, and those people continue to get remade every other life cycle (so people never end up with themselves) as the mission lasts.

2099: Reggie meets Jamal, who he introduces to C. Jamal also believes that C is a good, robust AI, and Reggie easily convinces him to build C to go along Noumenon, and he wants Jamal to go as well.

2124: The convoy is preparing for lift off. Reggie goes to Iceland with Dr. McCloud to see them off. They meet I.C.C. (new C) and Reggie uploads C’s memories to it without anyone knowing. All the ships have names – Mira is the one they live on, Eden is their small forest, and Bottomless is their storage ship, among others. We learn that although Reggie himself isn’t boarding the spaceship, his genes made the list to be a future clone.

2125: The convoy deploys with Reggie watching. He has incredible mixed feeling about being left behind. We switch over to the people on the convoy, and we’re quickly introduced to Nika and Margarita. Donald Matheson has been nicknamed “Father” and another of the heads becomes Mother. Father and Mother have worked with those selected for many years prior to deployment while in Iceland, and are both aboard the ships for the long haul. Everyone has their own job. Margarita is in charge of communicating back to earth, while Nika is an archivist. Cabins are divided between singles, doubles (if you got married), and quadruples (if you get married, you commit to raising two clones). Once the convoy has taken off, and everyone has a little time to get situated, there’s a huge blowout party!

The party is a huge celebration, and everyone is having a blast until Captain Mahler arrives with a shrill whistle, reminding everyone that the party was over, they had responsibilities, and they were to clean up and be ready for work the following morning.

Margarita arrives at her job, and although she was supposed to send the first message back to Earth, one from her contact, Saul, is already awaiting her. It asks “How are you?”. On Earth, in face-to-face communication, Saul is at best socially awkward, but Margarita soon learns that he is very social, and is always curious how she is doing. He doesn’t just care about the facts, but also the personal details, which both his life and hers are growing more interesting. At only about 6 months into the mission, already over 4 years had happened on Earth. Saul was married and had a son. Margarita started to think more about the “How are you?” question. She wasn’t the only one who was depressed. Suicides began happening on the ship, the first one being Nika’s biological cousin. Margarita continues to report back to Saul, more personally now which helps her, and after a few more suicides, she went to see the captain. The captain informs her that the original planning for the trip assumed that there would be suicides – expected them even. But no one expected them to happen so early in the mission as they expected them to start happening after the government had formed. A few suicides continued after the elections, but they dwindled away. Margarita was married, and was assigned a son–Reginald Straifer II. She sends Saul a last message to tell him, as Saul is in his 70s now and retiring. He’s replaced with someone Margarita has never met.

January 3, 2415 (30 years PLD – Post Launch Day):

We meet 8 year old Jamal III, who is about to get a sibling who happens to be a sister despite him REALLY wanting a brother. When he leaves school, he learns that his parents waited until the following day so that he could go with them and not have to miss school, so he visits his friend Diego instead. Diego is Jamal’s grandfather’s friend, but he’s more fun. Diego tells Jamal about how he had a sister; she was born the old fashioned way, and that Jamal needs to learn about prejudice because it’s not his sister’s fault that she is a girl. Diego talks about his life before leaving Earth, how he met Jamal 1 before they left, and how everyone needs to work together for this community. (Diego is great.)

When Jamal goes with his parents to pick up his sister, he remembers to ask what Diego wanted him to find out – what is the baby’s number. The adults start discussing how Diego must be close, much closer than Jamal’s grandfather. They watch the new baby, Nakamura Akane, be born, and head back to their ship. The next day, Jamal meets up with Diego, and tells him that having a sister isn’t that bad. He tells Diego the number, and then they head to Eden so that Diego can explain to Jamal that their ship is a closed system. For every baby born, an elderly person has to “retire”. There’s not enough supplies to not maintain that balance. Diego understands this, and he believes solely in it and in the mission. Jamal does not. He decides to find Jamal II (2 clone cycles ahead of him) to ask his opinion. Jamal II also believes in the mission. When the day comes for Diego to retire, he smuggles onto the shuttle to that ship and tries to stop the procedure. Diego definitively tells him that it is time to say good bye, and is retired. Jamal is in the biggest trouble of his life, and he turns to I.C.C. as his friend.

October 19, 48 PLD (2589 CE)

Still with Jamal III, 18 years later, Captain Mahler is inquiring why I.C.C. is having issues. A banner flashed saying “Remember clouds. Remember sand.” And neither I.C.C. nor Jamal know where it came from. I.C.C. turns on her full consciousness to try to deduce what is going on. She tracks down some people who witnessed the display, and tries to gauge their reactions to the messages, as they continue with “Remember ice cream trucks.” and “Remember holiday breaks.” I.C.C. thinks that there is something malicious going on, so she continues to turn on her full consciousness to spy on various crew members. She pieces together that the psychiatrist, Dr. Evita, was the connection between the crew members who had turned off the messages, and I.C.C. decides to tell this to Jamal…but Jamal is also one of Dr. Evita’s patients. He is who overrode I.C.C. in the first place to send the messages, and he tells her their plan – they intend to uprise to turn the convoy around to head back to Earth, all because of Diego and him being retired, in Jamal’s mind, too soon. The uprising happens, and there’s nothing I.C.C. can do to stop it. Jamal and his gang tell the governing officials that they are to turn the plane around, and when they say that they need more time, Jamal switches off the air into their room – the same room his sister is in too. Luckily I.C.C. has one last trick up her sleeve, and shorts herself out. When she comes back online, she learns from Margarita that the revolt lasted for a week, during which time Jamal was trampled, and none of the ringleaders were ever allowed to be reborn again. It’s Margarita’s retirement day, and she, like Diego, believes in the mission, and is happy I.C.C. is back online for her new version.

May 22, 98 PLD (3075 CE)

Captain Reginald Straifer IV is about to come out of SD travel and see LQ Pyx for what it is. He and Margarita discuss what the general mood will be and discuss the various messages that have been prepared for Earth. It’s been 100 earth years (10 convoy years) since they last received a message in return. There are many reasons that Straifer can think of as to why this may have happened, and coupled with the uncertainty of what they may or may not find at the star, there are a lot of pretty depressing ideas. Straifer rewatches the speech that his original gave on Earth so many years ago kicking off the project, and we learn that it was not supposed to be Straifer who was captain when they reached LQ Pyx; it was supposed to have been Mahler III, but he committed suicide and therefore eliminated his line forever.

They reach LQ Pyx and once they get everything in focus, they realize that the shell that surrounds the star…is man-made. It’s a mostly complete metal net of sorts. Still no reply from Earth regarding the incredible discovery. They discuss that they are also not receiving communications from whomever built the Dyson Sphere (which is a structure built around a star to passively gather energy), and they could be close-by, so they decide to open up their communications wavelengths further.

Six months later, they officially arrive. They have lots of speculations about the structure, but are excited to investigate it. The biggest question is – why isn’t the structure finished. Straifer seems to be getting more and more into his own head. We learn that after Mahler committed suicide, his widow remarried to Straifer. It seems to be plaguing him. When they are looking at the web, they keep going back to this section where there is a “seed” which seems to be at the middle of that portion of the web, and every night Straifer dreams of the seed, and it often has Mahler’s voice. When one of the probes returns, the pictures show a spaceship, and there’s a question as to whether that’s who is blocking the transmissions. Upon more research, it appears that not all of the web was constructed by the same individuals, or at least not all done at the same time. So what’s next? The original deployment allotted only a specific time to investigate LQ Pyx and then return to Earth with the results. Do they keep to the original plan, despite no news from Earth in years, or do they stay until they can complete the web?

They take a manned mission to the seed and find that one of the previous groups picked it apart fairly crudely to determine what was going on with it. As they are there, Straifer has an anxiety attack. He’s convinced there’s something wrong, and that they need to turn the ship around and get away from it. He goes so far as to tamper with the shuttle that is going to be heading back, but luckily I.C.C. alerts Nakamura to come stop him. He’s taken to the medical ship, where he dies – an aneurysm they suspect. Has the Seed claimed its first life?

February 9, 121 PLD (3088 CE)

The scientists finish collecting their samples of the mission as they were only allowed to stay for the allotted 20 years. I.C.C. is evolving, and has written a poem.

October 3, 121 PLD (3088 CE)

As the ships are transitioning into SD, something happens and part of Bottomless (the storage ship) is lost along with a bunch of crew members. They aren’t sure if SD travel can be used any more, so they proceed back at regular speed.

April 1, 161 PLD (3138 CE)

Something is different, even though it’s only 39 years later, and it takes a little bit to discover. Captain Mahler, the clone who was never re-cloned after his freak-out upon arrival at LQ Pyx is now the Warden, over a prison called The Pit developed out of the discontinued lines, aka “bad clones” who are used strictly for work details. This came out of … The problem is that the Warden and his prisoners don’t really fit into the system so they self-govern, and Mahler is abusing his power by killing prisoners. At the same time, we learn that Margarita (who is part of the governing board) and her former wife have sneakily reintroduced Jamal into society as their child Diego as they wanted general society to realize that the discontinueds do not belong in the Pit. This comes to a head when Mahler sees Diego and realizes he is the same as Rail who is in the Pit. Mahler approaches the board, but they refuse his request to allow him to check all the children who he believes to discontinued, so he hijacks a convoy that Diego is on. Margarita and her new wife hurry to find and protect some of the other children, and they learn that one of them is a clone of Mahler, who Margarita takes with her to the Pit. Margarita apologizes to Mahler for how this all turned out, but the convoy has sent a security team over as the feed of what is going on at  the pit is being distributed throughout the fleet by I.C.C. A battle ensues, and the Warden kills himself, both ending his suffering and stopping the purpose of the Pit.

May 28, 271 PLD (4101 CE)

Removing the Pit has made the crew take a handle of their fear and go back into SD, so they are quickly approaching Earth, and they are curious what they will find, since it’s been over a thousand Earth years since they’ve received any communication. What will they find when they return to Earth? The speculations that the book gives via discussions from the government board and how they might plan for such occurrences are all great possibilities for an ending to a book. Will they find anyone there? Is that why no communications? They have to wait to see. It’s no longer a homecoming, but more like a first contact.

When they finally do arrive, they see signs of life, but still, no response to any communications including the one that I.C.C. has been continually broadcasting since their arrival. They decide to wait for contact before fully landing, and give Earth 30 days to respond, and when they don’t, the convoy lands in Antarctica (a neutral zone). Shortly thereafter, they are approached by 6 humanoid figures, and they go out to meet them. Nika tries communication in multiple languages with no response and then reverts to sign language. All that occurs is that the 6 figures mimic her motions. Stopping to think about what to try next, the figures begin to run off, followed by the crew members. They are led down a long elevator, and the suspicion that the humanoids are indeed robots is confirmed when they power off upon arrival.

Once they reach the lower level, they find a huge underground city in the warmth of the geothermal. They begin seeing humans, but none will respond to them. They look frustrated and confused, and no one can understand why. They are led to an unusual room where the new robot escorts awaken a man who struggles to speak to them in a sort of code of abbreviations. None of the crew members can decipher it. They’re a bit creeped out about the situation so they go to leave the way they came when they meet Ephenza, the first person who can speak to them!

January 27, 4136 CE

We’re introduced to Esperanza Straifer – the daughter of Nika and Reggie Straifer. In the olden, on-ship days, they would have never been allowed to have a child as they were of different classes, and they weren’t allowed a clone. They had to have a baby the “old fashioned way”.  Esperanza is brilliant, but belligerent about life, partly due to ridicule she (believed she) experienced as a result of her parents and partly due to having to live up to her mother. She has been given implants similarly to the other Earth people so that she can communicate with them–a similar career as her mother had.

In the 35 years since landing, there’s been seemingly no progress on integration. Those from the ship are still considered outsiders, and the residents can’t be bothered by them. When Esper returns to the ship, there’s a message waiting for her, and she is surprised to learn that there was an agreement about the lease (of the land where the ships were parked) that she hadn’t been privy to. It turns out the board went over her head, and they thought she’d be happy since she seems to hate her job, and really, everything, but she isn’t. We learn that Earth likes having them there because they have the capability to grow lots of luxury items.

They instate another person to take over her role as ambassador to Earth, and it’s suggested that when they leave Earth (since even after years of trying, they aren’t integrating properly), maybe she should stay. She’s one of the few who has had successful implants (most can’t handle them) and she hates the way that she’s been treated. As she’s packing up to move out of her office, she gets a visit from her half-sister Caznal (after Esper’s father died, her mother married Ephenza, Caznal’s father). Caznal alerts Esper that there is something more going on, and she should not accept the loss of her job so willingly. I.C.C. backs up the suggestion that there is something more going on, and the board has consciously kept Esper in the dark about it.

Caznal begins to tell Esper that she has figured out the purpose of the Nest. It is full of hydrogen and she believes that it has the capability of pressurizing at such a high pressure that it can turn the hydrogen into a metallic state creating a circuit. However, when Caznal presented this data to the board in hopes of being allowed to study the seed to figure out how the ship’s computer, she was taken off the project. She knows that they believe her, but as she is an Earthling, not from Ship City, they don’t want her to know that they want to track down the creators of the Nest and make contact. Earth is too comfortable in their ways now to want change, and the concern from Ship City is that if Earth knows what they are doing, Earth will take away and destroy the Nest and not allow them to leave.

Negotiations begin without Esper, and everyone is excited to hear that Earth is agreeing to let them leave. Esper tracks down the full details of the negotiations and is shocked to find out that part of the negotiation was that Earth was to terminate I.C.C. She attends the board meeting to tell them how upset she is that they are agreeing to these terms when I.C.C. was the only thing to save them multiple times throughout their journey. Then to make the point even more cynical, she points out that if Earth thinks that I.C.C. is too outdated to make the trip, why wouldn’t they also think that the crew itself is too? It turns out that Esper is correct.

All the board and all the crew are subpoenaed for their genetic material so that Earth can determine if they are the correct people to go. Years go by as Earth has decided that the trip will necessitate 3 additional ships. Esper meets another janitor (her new job) named Lawrence, and is pregnant with twins. She goes to see her friend Toya who is still involved in board decisions when she realizes that Earth doesn’t want I.C.C. because they think it’s outdated. She realizes that Earth wants to keep I.C.C. because the knowledge of making fully artificial intelligence was lost long ago, and they realize that they need to stop Earth from taking the AI.

They fake a fire in which I.C.C. and Esper and Lawrence die (which means that they will not be able to go on the mission and will have to stay on Earth – a penalty that Esper is willing to take). Earth teams come in to salvage what they can, but they determine that I.C.C. is of no use without the main server which was destroyed.

A year later, January 19, 4148, a little over 2 millennia after the original voyage, the ships depart. Esper, Lawrence, and their two fraternal twins are there to watch, but the reader learns that the twins’ DNA was selected for the mission. Three hundred Earth years later, the book cuts to Toya introducing herself to the 20-something year old twins the day before her retirement and telling them that the ship owes everything to their biological parents.

An elderly Caznal meets with a young Jamal to continue studying the Nest, and they realize that the aliens who created it could control the hydrogen circuit with their bodies allowing them to biologically manipulate their gravitational field. Jamal initially is upset thinking that means that they will never figure out the Nest, but Caznal and I.C.C. are not so easily deterred. They believe that they can create something to bridge the gap and allow humans to do the same. It will take a lot of time and many years of research, but what do they have if not time?

Verdict: 4.5 stars

This book is one of the best books I have read in recent times, and I have recommended it to multiple people who have all really liked it as well. It’s still enough science to be sci-fi, but with a really incredibly interesting people story to go with it. I can’t wait for the sequel.

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Filed under 4.5 stars, Book Review

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