Friday, March 10, 2023

Microreview: Noumenon Infinity by Marina Lostetter

Marina Lostetter’s ambitious epic space opera series continues into its second volume.

In the original book Noumenon, we were introduced to a relatively near future humanity who had united behind common cause and possibility.  Interstellar travel was now possible, a relatively slow faster than light travel, but still worthwhile and practical, and hints that more research into the extra dimensions of space could improve it even more. Noumenon itself tells the story of one of the “convoys” of ships sent out to explore the local region of space, a wide ranging epic covering centuries of travel and using an AI as the viewpoint character to keep the narrative of the different time periods and characters together. That novel was a “there and back again” narrative, with the convoy reaching the mysterious and strange artifact known as The Web, and the hazards and tribulations the convoy faced when it came home. With notes of Kim Stanley Robinson and others, Noumenon was a highly ambitious work.

Noumenon Infinity continues that ambition and story. 

Noumenon Infinity continues the tradition of the first novel in having decades, even centuries pass between inflection points, important points in the narrative and story of the two convoys it follows. Unlike the first novel, this novel follows Convoy 7, the convoy that went to the web in the first novel, and also the new Convoy 12. Convoy 12’s mission seems to be a sideshow at first, just going out to the Oort cloud, not even a light year away, and do research on the subdimensions that make interstellar travel, to improve our understanding of it, theoretically and possibly practically.  Needless to say, things do not go according to plan for Convoy 12, and they wind up making the greatest journey of all the convoys in the process.

The original book leaned heavily on the AI as a throughline character to keep things going along and to have a narrative thread for the story. Here, C exists and has agency as a character in Convoy 7 (Convoy 12 does not have C, which turns out to be a real lack when things go sidewise for them). But even on Convoy 7, C takes a back seat, and there are aspects to the flow of how Convoy 7 goes that continues to make C a secondary character.

Instead, Lostetter relies heavily for Convoy 7 to use clonal descendant lines of characters to provide the narrative connective tissue between the set pieces as the Convoy returns to the web and learns its secrets of who built it, who altered it, and what happened to both. There is also a neat bit of character development when a character starts hearing voices...or does he? What starts off as appearing some sort of mental illness turns out to be much more, and becomes plot significant as well. But I am not sure that it works quite as well as having a persistent character as the first novel does. Convoy 12 has no such issues, and we follow the same set of characters that we start with. The contrast between the two convoys is rather stark, I am afraid.

But it is the ideas, the big ideas that really carry this novel and what I want to talk about. The first novel was about the long journey to a big dumb object and the challenges and strictures of making that journey, and then finding, when you returned home, that you really can’t go home again, not only because you have changed, but so has *home*.  

That sort of disconnection from home, that dislocation is a theme that runs through Noumemon Infinity, both on Convoy 7 and on Convoy 12. There are other questions in line, but the nature of home, and what happens when you are estranged from that, or from the people in our home is one of the abiding ideas that haunts both of the convoys as we follow their trials and travails. In keeping with that, the stories of both convoys really dive into the nature of humanity, the nature of the other, the nature of the alien, and how can we determine and really know what that other, what that alien is, and how we can engage with it. 

I found many notes and touchstones in this book.  The problems of generation ships are less in the forefront here than in the first novel, where really, that WAS the point, Kim Stanley Robinson Aurora style. Here, I got notes of Gregory Benford, with the quest to understand older galactic civilizations (there is a lot of theorizing and hypothesizing over remnants of alien civilizations and what that all means), of Greg Bear and his Forge of God series, of Alastair Reynolds, and even episodes of Doctor Who. There is a rich conversation the novel is having with a variety of works, and this is the sort of ambitious science fiction that rewards, one might even say is focused on readers who have read deeply and widely in the genre, so as to have already engaged with some of these ideas and seeing where Lostetter’s work fits in that genre conversation. 

And that comes to my last point...who this book and series is for. I do not think, in my view, that this is science fiction that is aimed at readers new to the genre. It’s long, deep, rich and engages with some of the more interesting core ideas and concepts of science fiction,with a wide canvas of time and space between the two convoys it follows. It is a book that engages with its predecessors and, especially for a middle book in a series, comes up with a more than satisfactory narrative. There are definite questions left in the narrative as to what is going on and why (on a galactic scale) and what the future of humanity will be. I look forward to tackling the third book in the series and seeing how Lostetter wrapped up her ambitious trilogy.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for wild ambition in telling a widescreen space opera, not only in space but also in time.

Penalties: -1  the lack of a central persistent character in one of the two convoys (as opposed to the first book) is a narrative disadvantage.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Lostetter, Marina, Noumenon Infinity [Harper Voyager, 2020]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.