My life in outer space

The Jonah Kit – Ian Watson (1975)

The Jonah kit

Watson, along with Greg Egan, is one of modern SF’s foremost exponents of not just Hard SF, but scientists’ SF. Watson’s novels tend to be a far tougher reading assignment than his short stories which are exquisitely crafted nuggets of genius for the most part; SF haikus if you will.
‘The Jonah Kit’ is a triple narrative which follows:-

1. Paul Hammond, a borderline psychotic scientist with a messiah complex, whose work has revealed not only God’s footsteps in the Big Bang but the truth that God created another – more real – universe leaving us in a state of being mathematically irrelevant.

2. Nilin, a boy kidnapped from the Russian scientists who had imprinted the consciousness of a Russian cosmonaut on his brain.

3. A sperm whale whose brain had also received an imprint of the cosmonaut’s consciousness.

Their stories ultimately converge and it becomes gradually obvious toward the final third of the book why they would need to do so.
The main problem I have with this novel is that none of the characters (with the possible exceptions of the boy and the whale) are likeable. One really wouldn’t want to spend time with them. Richard Kimble (Paul Hammond’s scientific partner) is the most likeable but his character is never sketched out enough. The rest of them are reminiscent of characters from JG Ballard novels, and they have their own reasons for containing such people.
Morelli is a castrated Italian reporter who whose frustration feeds his intense manner. Paul’s wife, Ruth, is it appears a sardonic nymphomaniac engaged in a desultory affair with Richard. Paul Hammond’s extraordinary behaviour is reminiscent of Silverberg’s Vornan-19 from ‘The Masks of Time’ in his flirting with the role of Messiah, encouraging crowd violence and deliberately shooting a ‘Satan Cult’ biker to kickstart a riot. There seems no real motive for Hammond to behave this way.
Most of the other characters are just as unpleasant.
However, there are beautifully poetic depths and connections that resonate throughout. The idea of sound and communication is repeated and reflected via the whistling codes of the Mexicans, the clicking of the Jonah kit, the clicking messages from the stars and the music of the blind and now mindless Russian.
It’s certainly a novel that makes one think, if a little bleak and nihilistic.

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