The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I’ve been reading and reviewing winners and nominees, looking for hidden gems I might not have found otherwise.
1977: The Jonah Kit by Ian Watson
A plot description of The Jonah Kit is somewhat straightforward- a Soviet boy shows up in Tokyo, but appears to have the mind of someone else implanted imperfectly in his head. The plot follows the Americans as they try to figure out what to do even as echoes of scientific discovery suggest there’s something awful looming. The simplicity of the plot belies the complexity of the prose and interconnectedness of the story, however.
Readers experience life within the mind of a sperm whale to which has been added the mental capacities, in some disjointed way, of a man. Additionally, the Soviet boy provides some wayward musings, and the sub- or main- plot of questioning whether our universe was possibly an accidental offshoot of the “real” universe gets mixed in as well. The whole thing ultimately becomes a morass of confusion at times. Each strand has strengths of its own, and Watson’s prose makes some of the scenes quite striking. However, some of the strands read like afterthoughts, and a clunky middle section does little to shed light on the direction the plot is supposed to be going.
What are we to do with the notion that our universe is a kind of accident/unintended/destroyed already? I don’t know, because the vision of that question is only given through glimpses, and even those are largely disdainful comments by other scientists. What of the sperm whale, what lesson has it for us? Is it that humanity is something we’ve invented to make ourselves appear better than the beasts? Maybe, but it could be more or less than that as well. And what are we to make of the ending, which falls somewhat suddenly and without resolution? I don’t know.
The Jonah Kit was ultimately a cacophony of disjunctions. I struggled to piece together its plot, even as strange visions of reality were presented. I don’t know what to make of it, but it was a tantalizing read.
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I really love Watson (recall that I read much more UK SF than from my native US). However, this is far from his best. I would very strongly recommend his trilogy Black Current, starting with The Book of the River, and his duology Book of Mana, starting with Lucky’s Forest. The latter is based heavily on Finnish mythology. Stand alones Chekhov’s Journey & Mockymen are also outstanding.
Honestly, if this is “far from his best,” I definitely want to check out more from him. There’s a double points sale on kindle books tomorrow (Feb 1, 2023), and I’ll pick up one of those Black Current books.
Oh wow, on a funny note, I’ve definitely read more books from him because I’ve read at least a couple of his Warhammer 40K books. Had no idea that was the same Ian Watson until today.