Noumenon is the first novel from established short-story writer Marina Lostetter. It takes as its starting point some well-worn SF themes: the invention of a method of avoiding the lightspeed limitation, making starships practical (the subdimensional or SD drive); and since the journey to other stars would still take several generations (ship time – many centuries on Earth), the construction of massive starships with populations of thousands, with the generations being reproduced by cloning to retain specialised skills.
The story begins with the discovery of an anomaly, an unusual and possibly alien feature around a distant star, at a time when humanity had developed the ability to build huge starships. Of the several Planetary United Missions (PUMs - exploration fleets) sent out to different destinations, one – Noumenon – is Convoy 7; the mission to the anomaly.
Because of the timespan of centuries, the book has an episodic nature, each chapter jumping ahead by (on average) dozens of years; which must have made the transition to novel-writing easier for the author, as the book is essentially a linked series of short stories. This structure does have the disadvantage that even though genetically the same individuals may be turning up in one episode after another, they are not the same people, so the development of a relationship between the reader and the principal characters is almost missing: almost, because the Artificial Intelligence which runs the mission forms a constant element.
Noumenon makes a slow start and I wasn't too impressed at first. There is something of a credibility issue concerning the starships; they are enormous, and nine of them are sent together in the fleet, carrying a total of around 100,000 people. Why such a huge number of people and ships is needed for a scientific exploration is never convincingly justified – the argument that this size of community is necessary to maintain social stability over the generations is questionable (and anyway, stability is not maintained). Also, making each ship specialise in one activity – e.g. just one produces all the food – leaves the fleet very vulnerable if any ship is lost. This creates something of a credibility problem at the start.
The writing style can be a bit breathless, as when one of the characters on the fleet exchanges messages with Earth and faces up to the reality of a left-behind friend ageing much faster due to time dilation: "I couldn't believe it. Seventy. So much of his life, gone. He'd been my constant these past few years, my Earthly touchstone, and now it was over. Over too soon." There is also some heavy moralising in places, such as when a small boy is being corrected over his sexist reaction towards a new baby sister. However, as the fleet aproaches the anomaly the tension increases steadily – the arrival, the first climax of the story, is less than halfway through the book.
As they return to Earth, the crew faces other problems and there are major cultural shifts among the population. All of this is leading up to the second climax – what they discover when they arrive "home" after several centuries. I do not wish to post any spoilers, so I will just say that this is not the end of Noumenon's story.
Despite the familiary of the basic plot elements, the author does well to weave them into a story which is original enough, and sufficiently dramatic, to hold this reader's attention. There is a sequel, Noumenon Infinity, reviewed below.
Noumenon Infinity is the sequel to Noumenon. It takes an unusual form, in that it returns to the start of the original novel, with the Planetary United Missions (PUMs) being sent out to explore the galaxy; only this time, the story begins by focusing on Convoy 12 rather than Convoy 7. This was originally due to be sent to a system which appeared promising as a home for life, but its mission was changed to one of testing new discoveries in subdimensional space travel, with the prospect of much reduced journey times. This work was undertaken not far from Earth, close enough for the crews to be changed regularly, so the self-sufficient culture of the other convoys was not needed and only three ships were sent out. The lead character in this mission is Vanhi Kapoor, and readers do get a decent opportunity to get to know her and her immediate colleagues as the first chapter lasts for no less than 84 pages; once again, a rather slow start to the story.
Chapter 2 is entirely different as the scene switches to Convoy 7, which we last saw in Noumenon, heading outwards from Earth for a second time and intent on completing the Web, the huge structure almost enclosing a star, in the hope that it will supply vast quantities of energy which could be transported to Earth in a specially-equipped spaceship (an oddly vulnerable and impractical source for an energy supply, I would have thought). The key individual now is Caznal, who specialises in the history of the people now dubbed the Nataré, who had explored the Web long before Earth and left behind an enigmatic structure, the Nest, now aboard one of the Convoy 7 ships. A schism in the convoy occurs, with part of the PUM being diverted to explore the Nataré sites identified on a map they had managed to interpret, while the main body continues on its mission. Again, this is a long chapter, enabling the characters to be well-developed.
Chapter 3 reverts to Convoy 12, which is exploring some intriguing sub-dimensional features when an accident hurls the mission a long way from Earth – and into the company of several alien starships. A fascinating combination of diplomatic mission and detective mystery follows as the Convoy members do their best to discover as much information as they can about the decidedly uncommunicative aliens.
As the pace of the stories increases, so the chapters gradually shorten while retaining the alternation between Convoys 7 and 12. Various intriguing plot developments maintain the reader's interest, while Convoy 7 at last achieve their goal (850 years after events in their previous chapter!) and commence a mad chase across the galaxy to discover what the Web was really made for, while Convoy 12 make a breakthrough in their relationship with the aliens.
The novel ends with a clear set-up for Volume 3 – which I hope will appear before too long!