Friday, December 22, 2023

Microreview: Noumenon Ultra by Marina J Lostetter

An ambitious epic space opera series comes to a conclusion in its third and final volume.

It's been quite an adventure across the first two volumes of the Noumenon saga. The discovery of subdimensions allowing space travel capable of reaching the stars has led humanity to great and sometimes tragic discoveries. The convoys have found alien megastructures, incomplete and waiting to be finished, as well as accidents of time and space sending members of convoys into the distant future, discovering the descendants of Homo Sapiens.

In Noumenon Ultra, the third and final book of the trilogy, Marina Lostetter works toward an overall capstone to the saga that started in Noumenon and continued in Noumenon Infinity,

I mentioned in my review of Noumenon Infinity that one of the criticisms I had in trying to present this large space opera trilogy, for me anyway as a reader, is persistent main characters. The connective tissue between this book and the second, and the books in general, I see now, rely very much less on characters than the grand scope of her ideas.

Don't mistake, there is connective tissue in the form of C (or ICC), the sentient computer that has been present in all of the books and has acted as a sort of facilitator and guide for a number of characters and even entire convoys across the books. There is a real accidentally to ICC and their existence and persistence which seems to populate this book. This book, this series,  has a lot of messy "for want of a nail" events that mirror real history. The cloning of Jamal Braeden, for example, successfully, does tie back to the original novel and does give us a tie to the first novel, and yet the people responsible for cloning him could not predict that one of the clones would eventually decide to break free of the dogma and ritual and structure that has been accreted around him. 

And then there is Vanhi Kapoor. I slept on her and her story a bit in the second volume, but here, in the third volume, I can see that she is one of the keystone characters. She is one of the soi-disant "immortals", one of a select few in the book, but her case is different than the clone lines, or ICC or anyone else because of her being a bit unstuck in time and skipping ahead thanks to her tangled relationship with a particular subdimension. Lostetter reveals in this volume that Vahni's relationship with the subdimension, is in fact, a slowly but surely degenerating one and that Vanhi, cannot, in fact, continue to fly toward the future forever. This does help drive her to participate in, and work with the main thrust and plot of the novel.

So once you have had a novel where convoys find alien megastructures and try and deal with their legacy and history, and also have a convoy that winds up going to the far future and discovering the descendants of humanity, where does go with the capstone of a series with such big and broad ideas like this? Lostetter decides to reach for a Stapledonian, or in a more modern guise and mode, a Baxterian solution. The purpose and the ultimate aims of the megastructures (since by this point there are several in various states of completion and activation) is revealed. There is life, sentience, beings in other universes, in the subdimensions, as opposed to the relative paucity of intelligent life in our own cosmos. The Noumenon project, then, is ultimately revealed to be a eons long project from the Pentatheem (the species that began the megastructures) to create the capability to not only have beings from these subdimensions visit our own, but most crucially, have the ability to visit them.

The devil of course is in the details. Lostetter draws together everyone, more or less, at the created planet Noumenon in an effort to understand each other, and what is going on, and to solve the enormous problems and challenges of the projects. We get threats to the fabric of space time itself, several first contacts, the revelation that the Pentatheem are not quite as extinct as first thought. Even after billions of years, they have, in a vastly different form, managed to survive. And then there is the very weird "wheeled form" of the species that in a scant few tens of thousands of years of ICC sleep, managed to evolve to sentience on the newly formed planet. To say nothing of the three kinds of humanity, the original and its two descendant branches. 

All of these species, and characters from each, eventually come together during the long and epic journey of the book. From infiltration escapades and escapes, to soaring above the landscape of the planet, the novel does try to reinterpret, reiterate and bring the themes of the first two novels to a conclusion. The nature of humanity (the conflicts and concerns between the original homo sapiens and the Lhung really emphasize that). Sentience. The potentials and dangers of large amounts of power, temporal and physical. The sometimes chaotic nature of history and the "founder effect" leading to very strange results down the line. And much more.

And the novel ends on a grace note for Vanhi, which, given all that she has been through since the first novel, I did appreciate. Too often such details get lost in the walls of words of a large epic like this. Lostetter has done an admirable and worthy job in trying to keep it all tied up, all together. 

I admit, as a reviewer, and as a reader, I want to ponder the relative lack of attention that the Noumenon series has received as opposed to some of the more usual suspects. It is true that really big widescreen space opera epics of this scope are not the fashion and trend these days. These days, what I like to call "Solar System Space Opera" - Expanse type stuff (even if it doesn't take place in Earth's own solar system) is far more common and always has been. The Gregory Benford, the Stephen Baxter, the Olaf Stapledonian sort of space opera and widescreen epic across the entire galaxy and enormous spans of time is pretty rare and pretty niche. And yet Baxter, and Benford, and Banks, and Bear are well known within the SF genre.

But for Marina Lostetter's Noumenon, I've seen far less coverage, play and interest. This might be as simple as the problem of women writing SF, especially hard SF, getting coverage, interest and readers eyeballs. There is a commitment, learning curve and opportunity cost to deciding to not buy the latest Stephen Baxter and instead picking up Noumenon and giving Lostetter and her brand of big epic SF a try. For reviewers in my stratum, it's often less a matter of the cost of the book and just the time and effort to try and engage with it, rather than falling on more familiar and established (read: male) authors, especially when the Noumenon books are each 500 pages or more. I get that.  And this can also apply to Essa Hansen's Nophek Gloss series. Wildly ambitious big screen (multiverse!) space opera that hits different notes than this one, but again, it's a commitment to try Hansen, just like it is a commitment just to try Lostetter.

And so I am here to tell you that if you want the big widescreen space opera on the grandest of scales, with long timeframes, lots of characters, big ideas, strong reflections on lots of weighty topics, and wild ambition that the novels do not always utterly achieve (because at these scales, no write quite ever can) but hit pretty well, then this (as well as Hansen's work) are the series you want.  I see that Lostetter has subsequently moved onto fantasy, but I do hope that she will return to SFF one day. I can kind of see how and why she might not want to for a while, given this series. This is the kind of series where you can "say everything" you want, just given the breadth of the work and the many things that are going on. I didn't even touch on the topics of motherhood, cloning, immigration and acceptance of others, xenophobia, and many others. 

So. The next time you are tempted to reach for the biggest of widescreen space operas, I urge you to give Marina Lostetter's Noumenon series a try. I think you will be glad you did. 



  • The widest of big screen space opera settings temporally and physically
  • Closes out some long running plots of the series with verve
  • The grace note at the very end brought a tear to my eye.

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

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