Noumenon Infinity – If Only There Was A Beyond

81yaaugbqhlIf Noumenon felt like the detached and cool but ultimately understanding older cousin, Noumenon: Infinity is your loving aunt who also happens to be a trained therapist. The first book took a more removed and neutral approach to its narrative style as well as the questions it posed about the nature of purpose and drive, but Noumenon: Infinity seemed to move towards an increasingly active narration that sought the answer to the first book’s questions. I enjoyed the first book’s presentation, but, I also appreciate the tack taken in Infinity, because it invites the reader to join in dissecting the answers to these complicated questions. Infinity has some pacing issues but ultimately carried the torch lit by Noumenon to a brighter future.

Infinity follows two separate storylines, one in line with the vignettes from the previous book, and the other a more linear story following a parallel project that launched after the original Noumenon fleet left for the stars. The vignettes follow the crew of the Noumenon as they set back out into space, hoping to determine once and for all the nature of the Nest, the structure they had found in Noumenon. The crew begins their return journey to the Nest, but along the way they separate. A small group of volunteers decides to follow the trail of a presumed extinct alien race while the bulk of the fleet attempts to finish construction of the Nest. The parallel story follows another team that is investigating more efficient ways to harness subspace dimensional travel when their experiment goes awry and sends the team to an unknown part of the galaxy.

At first, the separate timelines were a little jarring. The linear story about the experimental dimensional travel has chapters which are chronologically closer together, heightening the immediate character tension. The vignettes operate on the opposite end of the spectrum, nodding to the first book by employing large time jumps in order to smoothly process the grander story. Lostetter, refreshingly, relates very little of the first book, relying on the reader to have read Noumenon in order to fully experience the story. Her choice forces the reader to expend some effort, in the beginning, to keep the timelines straight and process the new cast of characters, but it feels worth. As the book proceeds, the separate storylines feel stronger, and the chapters begin to complement each other. I rarely felt frustrated that I was leaving one storyline for the other as Lostetter managed to balance the tension in two very different conflicts. Survival felt very real as the struggles within each narrative gradually became more threatening as each chapter ended.

One of my favorite things about the first Noumenon was how human the characters felt. I was engaged in the first story, but Lostetter made me feel deeply involved with the characters in Infinity. The original story of the clones, grasping towards the stars with their own imbued purpose, was still as riveting as ever. However, the author dialed it in so much more with the second storyline. She focused on people whose experiment was not to leave the solar system, but rather people with families on Earth who get flung across the universe in a seemingly freak accident. Lost, confused, and dealing with circumstances beyond their control or understanding, they eventually make the first contact with an alien species. Operating with no protocol for how to handle this event, as well as a dwindling amount of supplies, the crew had to desperately reach into the unknown hoping for a helping hand. The crew had to make real and immediate decisions that ultimately forced them to deal with the aliens or die alone in the dark.

One of the more interesting things Lostetter did with her parallel story structure highlighted the dualism of purpose and feeling of aimlessness. Often, events would occur that were out of the characters’ control and lead to bouts of horror and depression. A sense of direction needed to be reapplied after deliberation, as rash actions created a blindness to the future. Both stories produced this effect by examining this human tendency on different scales. This dynamic was shaky at first, but gradually a harmony was realized with the ramping tension. It is a nice thing looking back, and something I did not realize while I was reading. It gives me a sense of hope that someone like Lostetter can make her own writing feel it has a past of its own, which also forces the reader to question humanity’s own history as a species. This intricate dance of purposefulness and aimlessness within the story, as well as the melding of the two narratives, is a clever way to examine and present this idea.

As I mentioned earlier, I liked the slight tonal shift away from the feeling of a distant, neutral eye watching wayward children to the more active narration. It may have just been my reading experience, but Lostetter seemed to write with higher expectations of herself and her characters. The stakes felt higher than in the first book, all while feeling even more attached to the characters’ decisions. There was a sense that humanity could do better, and that individuals in or out of power, had a responsibility to do right. Accepting the way things are is not enough, despite what may have been the status quo for generations. It felt as if Lostetter was saying that purpose and the pursuit of it are both important and the examination of both is required. Lostetter has a gift for recognizing the beauty in people, or even a people, who are realizing their mistakes. Whether it was unleashing some horrible monstrosity or losing control of one’s own emotions in front of a close friend, pain, horror and regret were all handled with poise and renewed empathy.

All in all, Infinity is a tight sequel that expands on the themes from the first book. It is longer, but it also has more to say and more substantive material. Lostetter manages to heighten the terror of exploring the unknown while offering even brighter sparks of hope. The characters’ choices made are not made lightly, and the consequences are heavy enough to stick with the reader long after closing the book. Several scenes will probably stay with me until I die. But if there is one thing that Lostetter wants you to know, it is that though the universe might be a dark and scary place, full of monsters we might embody or encounter, we do still have each other. In fact, it might be all we ever really have, now and in the future. In a weird way, she makes it feel like hope if we are only willing to accept it.

Rating: Noumenon Infinity – 8.5/10
-Alex

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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

Persepolis Rising – New Year, Same Great Expanse

Happy new year everyone. With the coming of 2018 everyone is looking forward to new experiences, new resolutions, and new books/series. Meanwhile, I am jumping back into a tried and true series, The Expanse, to start the year off on a high note. I take great comfort in knowing that no matter how hard my year gets, I will almost always get an Expanse novel to comfort me at some point., This time we are taking a look at Persepolis Rising, the seventh of nine in this sweeping science fiction series. This review will have some mild spoilers for the previous six books, so if you haven’t read them I would turn back now… and go read them. Why haven’t you read them yet? They are amazing.


So Persepolis Rising, or as I like to call it – new Mars rising – picks up thirty years after the events of Babylon’s Ashes, which was a bit much to process right off the bat. Everything and everyone has gotten old, from Holden and his crew to the Rocinante itself. It was a bit of a shock honestly, and was definitely something that took a large amount of getting used to. I was not ready to hear about Bobbie and Amos having joint trouble after years of kicking ass, I wanted them to remain eternally useful. The aging of the Rocinante was weirdly something that upset me a ton. I had grown complacent in book, after book, of the magical stolen ship being able to pull up and be the the biggest gun around – and I loved it. So seeing everything I love get old and obsolete sucked. Especially when Duarte and his new sovereign empire of Laconia come a knocking.

As our heroes and their tech reach the end of their lifetime, Duarte and his new people return with tech far beyond anything anyone has seen. Apparently seeing himself as some sort of Hitler/Jesus hybrid, Duarte sends his armies through the portals to both opress and force the rest of humanity into his authoritarian dictatorship… and also to “save” them. The theme of Persepolis Rising is the old, who are obsolete and broken, vs the new, who are young and fresh. The book has great commentary on the value of experience, the difficulty of fighting an enemy who are several eras ahead of you in technology, and the follies and innocence of youth.

If I am being honest, this book felt a little weird on the heels of Babylon’s Ashes thematically. Thirty years is a HUGE time gap, more than the total amount of time taken up by all six other books. Most of the book follows Holden and his Crew on Medina station, trying to sabotage the Laconian occupation through basically terrorism – to mixed results. Since one of the morals of the last two expanse books was that terrorism is bad, I felt myself very conflicted. I suspect that this inverse of ideas was intentional, but this is the first Expanse book that did not feel like a fluid and natural follow up to the previous. In addition to this, Persepolis Rising felt more like the set up for the final Expanse trio of books, than a self contained story like its predecessors. Duarte seems to be the final villain of The Expanse (though I will not be surprised if he is killed and something worse shows up for the finale), and this book is basically his introduction.

The disconnect between Babylon’s Ashes and the lack of a fully contained story place Persepolis Rising on the lower end of my Expanse book rating. It doesn’t quite have the same power or punch as its siblings. That being said, it is also an Expanse book and will definitely be in my top books of 2018. Go check it out as soon as possible and welcome our new Laconian overlords.

Rating: Persepolis Rising – 9.0/10

-Andrew