July 27, 2017
(++++) BEYOND THE KNOWABLE
Noumenon. By Marina J. Lostetter. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
There is something inherently off-putting about a book whose title alone requires some understanding of Platonic and Kantian philosophy. But it is worth struggling (if struggle be needed) beyond the title page of Marina J. Lostetter’s Noumenon to get to the meat of the adventure, because it is an adventure, and turns out to be both one of external events (phenomena) and one that occurs internally and involves matters that are unmeasurable and thus in a sense never fully knowable (noumena). The possibility than noumena may actually be no more than delusions figures into this book, too, and readers who get through the entire work will likely decide by its conclusion that the title is quite apt.
The basic, external plot of Noumenon is straightforwardly science-fictional. In the near future on Earth (2088), a scientist finds a distant star that seems to be surrounded by something anomalous, and convinces the Planet United Consortium that LQ Pyxidis is variable in a way that may reveal important truths about solar-system formation or may at last settle the question of intelligent alien life once and for all. Humans are by now capable of interstellar travel, and the decision is made to journey, as one of 12 missions, to LQ Pyxidis – a trip that, even with faster-than-light travel, will still take multiple generations. Hence the creation of Convoy Seven, in which the central characters for narrative purposes are Reginald Straifer, discoverer of the anomalous star system; principal engineer Nakamura Akane; resource specialist Diego Santibar; and Jamal Kaeden, creator of an artificial intelligence to help maintain the fleet. That is, these are the initial central characters, because Straifer, Nakamura, Santibar and Kaeden are clones – who will produce other clones that will continue the journey through the very extended time span it will require. The clones do jobs based on talents found through DNA analysis, but Lostetter tackles the traditional nature-vs.-nurture argument in SF form here by having the abilities and bonds of the characters change from generation to generation – even when the generations are clones of clones rather than messily mixed children conceived naturally.
Neither the clones nor DNA itself can be regarded as perfect, and the distance in both time and light years from Earth becomes in Noumenon an opportunity for exploration of the flaws that on the one hand make us human but that, if repeated, risk jeopardizing the mission of Convoy Seven and hold worrisome risks for Earth itself. The best SF tends to focus on characters rather than technology for its own sake, and that is what Lostetter does: the AI assistant here, although in some ways reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s notorious Hal, is used essentially as a supportive narrative device to allow Lostetter to pay greater attention to character interaction and to pose some intriguing questions about everything from human personalities to the limitations of predictive calculations. The notion of dual clones existing at the same time so the first can teach the second is but one intriguing element here, leading to issues of what teaching really means and how experiential learning differs from textbook instruction. Lostetter also makes good use of the Einsteinian SF trope (and an apparent fact of the universe) in which time passes more quickly on Earth than on an interstellar ship traveling at (or in this case faster than) the speed of light. In the long run – and it is a very long run indeed, feeling more extended than the book’s 400-some pages – the destination, LQ Pyxidis, matters less than the journey, for it is the journey itself that is one of small discoveries that eventually become greatly important. The discoveries are by and large not traditionally measurable and hence are noumena rather than phenomena. But Lostetter’s point, and it is one that is very well taken, is that the things we cannot directly observe, weigh and measure may be, indeed are, the things that ultimately matter as we develop technology that takes us farther and farther outward to observe phenomena. Thus, travel inward is as crucial to humanity’s future as outbound travel – scarcely a new conclusion in SF. But the way Lostetter comes around to it is very thoughtful and filled with enough drama (and philosophy) to make Noumenon an unusually interesting metaphysical treatise and analysis in the guise of an adventure novel – without ever losing sight of the grand adventure through which the philosophical concepts are explored.