Harper Voyager | 2017, Pb 2018 (I read the Hb) | 420p | Bought copy | Buy the book
It is 2088 and much of Earth is relatively prosperous and at peace, looking for humanity’s next adventure, to escape the bounds of the solar system. It will send a number of enormous starship convoys out into space, each carrying more than 100,000 people. But where to send them? Astrophysicist Reggie Straifer might just have an answer for one of them. He has discovered an unusual star that defies the laws of physics. Its name is LQ Pyx.
Convoy Nine is given the mission, designated Noumenon, to travel to the star to discover whether it is natural or alien-made. The journey will take generations, a hundred years or so. The convoy will stay at the star for twenty years and then it will return to Earth to share whatever knowledge it’s discovered. Due to the variations of time on such a journey, a period of centuries for the convoy will be thousands of years for Earth, so who knows what the travellers will find on their return. But these are no ordinary astronauts – each will be a clone. The same sets of donated genes will live their lives over and over again.
If I were to write a recipe of everything that I like in a science fiction novel then Noumenon would be the resulting delicious dish. Astonishing and awe-inspiring objects in space, giant spaceships travelling into the unknown, a mystifying Earth in the distant future, the evolution of society on a generation ship, clones, an intriguing and unusual ship AI. I loved everything about it. The novel makes leaps through the years so in each sizeable chunk we follow a new set of personalities, some familiar to us from previous lives as clones are reborn. The legacy of these past lives is one of the novel’s big themes – are future clones guilty of the crimes of their ancestors because they share the same DNA?
There is such a sense of wonder – something that I crave in science fiction, especially the kind that deals with new worlds and space exploration. Reggie Straifer is driven by this wonder. The first generation of clones unleashed for the first time on their ships are almost giddy with it. But how to maintain that over the decades? And how to deal with the practicalities of living a sustainable existence aboard a starship when space and resources are limited? The way that they do this is agonising. And so the question remains – what do you do when the wonder is gone?
For me, the wonder remained and I was gripped by every stage of this novel. I would have liked more time spent at the anomalous star but there will, I believe, be more answers (as well as more questions, no doubt) in the sequel Noumenon Infinity. What we learn here, though, deeply intrigues and puzzles. But there are other things here just as fascinating as the star and they are wondrous to discover. Noumenon is a complete novel in its own right, sweeping through centuries of time. It sets the stage for the second book but it ends well. It did, though, make me want to read Infinity as soon as I can – I bought it immediately. I love it when a book urges me to buy everything else an author has written.
Noumenon is a rewarding and thrilling space adventure which overflows with big themes and questions about life and what drives people on, whether they’re a human being, an AI or a clone. Our sympathies are engaged repeatedly as we get to know these people, even though many of them are only passing through the story. The descriptions of the star are fantastic! I cannot wait to return in Noumenon Infinity.