The future is here and all the social progress we could ever have hoped for has arrived, nations are working together, and they are sending humanity to the stars. PhD candidate Reggie Straifer has discovered an odd star, hundreds of light years away, and somehow managed to convince the powers that be to devote untold resources to sending humans out to study it, using a subdimensional drive that allows ships to travel much faster than the speed of light. A hundred odd years of space travel for the convoy will be over 2,000 years for those back home, but that’s how progress happens–by slow leaps and bounds.
This book, though it’s been compared to Arthur C. Clarke (whom I’ve not read a scrap of) reminded me most of Emma Newman’s recent work in Planetfall and After Atlas, all three novels being confident enough in their storytelling to move beyond the how of interstellar travel to the who–who goes, who stays, and what happens to them in the meantime. The sociological impact of putting a 10,000 clones on a nine-ship convoy heading to an abnormal star is what’s really at stake in Noumenon–an aptly titled novel in many ways, not least of which because it is a novel of speculation. We’ll never know what could happen in a century ship until it does, but taking a look back at human history gives us a pretty good idea of what could.
Individually, Noumenon is told in a series of vignette chapters which skip forward in time, sometimes featuring different versions of the same clone, sometimes showing a different perspective altogether. Each person was chosen for the mission based not only on intellectual capabilities, but their ability to pass a series of psychological checks that indicate they will have the necessary empathy and emotional stability to make the mission a success. In many ways, Noumenon is the closed room of human development, a mystery that won’t be solved until the mission is over and their findings disseminated to the future owners of earth.
The stories told in Noumenon are by turns inspiring, comical, heartbreaking, and, in the end, cathartic. Though I was occasionally unsure of some representations of injustice and racial or ethnic identities, this novel mostly lived up to its intentions, presenting a thoughtful look at what could be, and that which can never be fully understood about humanity.