Wednesday, January 27, 2021

“Phenomena” by Douglas Phillips – The Voices from the Stars

Phenomena by Douglas Phillips (Book cover)
Douglas Phillips is someone who seeks to explore the science-fiction genre in all of its shapes and aspects, and with his novel Phenomena he moves away from the space exploration of his Quantum Series. 

The story follows Amelia Charron, a neuroscientist using mind-linking technology allowing her to enter the dreams of patients. Recently, she received a patient whose dreams carry disturbing and impossible knowledge.

Douglas Phillips Explores the Wonders of the Mind

At this stage, I think it's safe to say Douglas Phillips has carved a little niche for himself in the science-fiction genre by authoring the excellent Quantum Series, taking us on a journey through the stars which is still going. In his recent novel Phenomena he decided to take a detour from the depths of space, instead focusing on some wondrous happenings of the human consciousness down on Earth.

The story begins by introducing us to Amelia Charron, a neuroscientist who specializes in researching brain disorders. The main tool in her line of work is an amazing piece of technology allowing people to link their minds with each other, enabling her to explore the dream worlds of her patients, acting as a sort of guide in what they refer to as an “assisted lucid dream”.

The point of the treatment is to reroute neural pathways in the brain and hopefully helping it recover from damage, trauma and disability. However, the treatment is far from being without risk, both for Amelia and her patients; extreme care is always required.

While things are going relatively smoothly, a new patient enters the picture: Orlando Kwon. Diagnosed with early stage schizophrenia, he claims to be hearing alien voices, without any idea of what they're trying to tell him. With his life coming apart at the seams, Amelia's unique specialization becomes his last hope.

When she dives into his dream, she sees not the workings of a schizophrenic, but a wondrous and terrifying alien world, along with knowledge Orlando couldn't possibly have and even a language unknown to anyone on Earth. Being far out of her depth, Amelia must nevertheless uncover the truth behind her patient, at least before he completes a strange device he was compelled to build.

Neuroscience-Fiction in Phenomena

If you're familiar with Douglas Phillips recent works, then I think you'll understand the intrigue I felt at the idea of him tackling another sector of science-fiction besides space travel. Though I didn't know how well his style would translate to such a different topic, his attention to detail is second-to-none in the realm of hard science-fiction.

The first thing I would like to point out is how much research Phillips has once again done on the subject he chose to immerse himself into. His extensive mastery of the topic proves not only educational at times, but also sets a perfect stage for seamlessly mixing fact and fiction in a single bundle.

The fiction part is never pushed into the realms of the obviously unbelievable or totally impossible. For the most part, it's actually fairly difficult to say where the facts end and where Phillips' imagination begins to take over. In my opinion, this is a very important factor in this book's appeal, because it makes the fictional parts feel as if they might bleed over into reality one day.

Though many of the concepts he describes are relatively complicated in nature, Douglas Phillips has a fantastic ability for translating them all into layman's terms, explaining things as simply and intuitively as I've ever seen him do. However, even so, I think plenty of passages need to be read at least twice to be truly grasped, although personally I don't mind it one bit.

Additionally, if like myself you don't know much of anything about neuroscience, there's a handy guide at the end which explains what is real and what isn't. In other words, don't let your lack of degree in neuroscience stop you from reading this book.

The Battleground of Consciousness

The book is certainly rather heavy on the science aspects, but this doesn't mean Phillips forgot about the need to have a plot which consistently moves forward. As a matter of fact, I would argue the pacing in this book is superior to many other works in the genre despite them placing a greater focus on plot development.

I believe there are two simple reasons for it. The first one is the fact the author never meanders left and right; everything we learn and everyone we see has something to do with the plot or the science in one way or another. The second is one is the use of dialogue only when necessary and where it feels natural, rather than having it there for the sake of it.

As a result, whether we're learning about the technical facts and details behind the concepts presented by Phillips or are watching our characters go about their business, there's a constant sense of forward momentum which makes this book feel like a bit of a page-turning thriller... just a little bit. Even the revealing moments of character development don't feel like they slow anything down.

The plot itself also has quite a few exciting developments in store, with a few truly emotional and impactful moments along the way. The suspense also feels like it's constantly building up, and despite the few releases, it reaches respectable heights at the climax. Watching Amelia struggle against not only the clock but also against an enemy she can barely understand gives way to some nail-biting moments.
Phenomena by Douglas Phillips (Book cover)

Some interesting ideas are also raised surrounding the topic of human consciousness. Part of them are interesting and hopeful, relating to ways in which people could be realistically healed from terrifying conditions. However, others are frightening, and allow us to imagine a future where mind control or manipulation is possible in one shape or another.

The Final Verdict

Phenomena by Douglas Phillips is a fantastic piece of hard science-fiction which profoundly explores the field of neuroscience and where it could take us, while also telling an exciting story which never stops moving forward.

If you've enjoyed the author's previous works, or are looking for a truly formidable sci-fi novel centred on the human mind and consciousness, then I strongly recommend you give this book a read.

Douglas Phillips (Author)

Douglas Phillips

Personal site

Douglas Phillips is an American author with two science degrees, as well as experience in designing predictive computer models. As a writer, he is best-known for writing the Quantum series, a series of hard science-fiction novels revolving around the realm of particle physics, and more recently the standalone novel Phenomena.

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