Noumenon: Kant You See It?

32600718German philosopher Immanuel Kant explains the “noumenon” as a thing in itself or something that exists beyond the realm of human experience, whereas a phenomenon is something that can be explored and related to through our senses and emotions. Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon is a novel as intricate and thought-provoking as the idea from which it draws its title. In selecting such an ambitious title, Lostetter foreshadows that her story will explore ideas that cannot be explained by way of the reader’s human senses, which she achieves by asking provocative questions about the purpose of humanity in the universe at large. Lostetter’s successful attempt to explore a small culture of humanity imbued with purpose, combined with her purposefully neutral writing, makes for an intriguing and worrying look at a potential future of humanity.

Noumenon follows a crew of a hundred thousand clones spread across a fleet of nine ships that acts as a generational convoy. Because the story takes place over several hundred years and multiple generations, the narrative is told through a series of vignettes that offer different perspectives from the passengers. Everyone on the ship is a cloned scientist from Earth and has specific, prescribed duties on the ship. They are trained by the previous generation of clones, who in turn are aided by an advanced AI system that continues to learn throughout the journey. The short stories are set periodically throughout the ship’s journey, providing a larger picture of the mission as it is completed. Each chapter follows a different character and their view of society-changing events; this style allows for a deeper look at the growth of this community and their values over time.

Lostetter wastes no time when it comes to discussing ethics. From the very first chapter, she plays with reader’s sense of right and wrong. As the first chapter deals very heavily with the planning and construction of the project, Lostetter subtly appeals to the reader’s sense of an impending and extremely grand space exploration. Though in this future, cloning is mostly forbidden and looked down upon, it feels the perfect fit for a mission of this magnitude to avoid the genetic bottlenecking that would be caused by the limited population diversity within the generation fleet. While I did not realize it at first, this rhythm is used through the rest of the novel: a problem arises, a solution that is unorthodox is suggested with most of the surface arguments presented and analyzed, and the experiment is set in motion. Lostetter manages to make many things feel reasonable and predictable in the immediate future, only to have the actual long-term results be quite unpredictable.

The characters especially help to sell the ideas at play in the book. They feel incredibly human, if a little detached from the reader. Their lamentations and inner thoughts felt relatable as they opened up to themselves or others around them. Since the story lacks a unifying narrative structure between the vignettes, Lostetter allows herself some space to explore how to tell each story. By avoiding limiting her perspective to one character, each story – and in turn, the whole story – is told with maximum effectiveness. This diversity of voices affords the story some flexibility in tone as it jumps from the inevitable grandeur of planning new space exploration, to the quiet solitude of dealing with time dilation, to the curiosity of the AI as it deal with individuals. Each new story kept pulling me back in with its characters, even if the ending of the previous story felt defeatist or lonely. Every perspective had a way of coping that gave the reader something to connect to as the stories jumped in time, pulling the reader along for the ride.

While Lostetter’s protagonists were colorful, her language was plain. Despite that, her writing style is surprisingly one of the book’s strongest characteristics. While her descriptions are serviceable at best, they are never lacking. What I especially admire is her ability to remain neutral throughout the story without becoming passive. She highlights the pure emotion of a character witnessing or acting during an event, without commenting on the morality of the event or action itself. This vague feeling of the reader having to pass their own judgement grows through the story and invites them to question Lostetter’s intent with each successive chapter. Each narrator becomes unreliable as their goals become clearer, and they feel somehow tainted based on the actions of previous generations. Every time something morally questionable or reprehensible occurred, I found myself wondering how the author felt while writing about it because her neutrality felt so deliberate. However, this style was not immediately apparent, and only became more noticeable as the book progressed, and the society dives deeper and deeper into situations that feel taboo by today’s standards.

I did not feel Lostetter really wanted to say much about what she wrote, because her objectivity feels deliberate and active. She is neither unsure of her opinion nor defensively trying to avoid it; rather her approach felt more like she was asking the reader “what do you think?” in order to start a conversation. Admittedly, it is not a tactic that is emblazoned in neon letters, but I give Lostetter a lot of credit. It is a technique I have a hard time using normally, and would have an even tougher time if I decided to write with that mentality. Her adjectives were descriptive without carrying a pejorative or laudatory weight, except for when a character’s dialogue reacted to another’s actions or suggestions. The contrast between Lostetter’s own use of language and that which is used by the characters’ only highlighted the moral conundrums at play.

I will not pretend to really understand classical philosophy or the deeper nuances of Kant’s ideas, but I think Lostetter does a decent job of trying to encapsulate both in her book. As the reader, I do not exist within the story, nor have I grown up in the society portrayed. I will not know what it is like to be born with a specific purpose, and live to see that purpose realized and be perplexed by its ending. This to me is the essence of noumenon, and why the author’s deliberate neutrality is both successful and necessary. The book itself is the phenomenon. It allows the reader to engage the thing with their senses without them being the thing itself. By highlighting different stories instead of providing a stable character the reader can identify with, Lostetter gives the reader a chance to react and ponder the consequences for themselves by seeing how the protagonists exist within the story.

Recently, I have taken to reading the acknowledgements at the end of a book to get a feel for what is important to the author as they thank those who helped them, explain how the book helped them discover bits of themselves, or what their goal for the book has been. Upon reading Lostetter’s acknowledgements, I could not have been more wrong about her seeming neutrality and removedness. Every character feels imbued with her own experiences of sadness, shock, anger, ambition, hopelessness, and ultimately with her curiosity. The people she thanked and what she thanked them for find their way into her vignettes, adding humanity to the deep emptiness of space. Noumenon, while not perfect, turned out to be far more interesting to me than I expected, and I can not wait to read Noumenon: Infinity.

Rating: Noumenon – 8.0/10
-Alex

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