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The Jonah Kit by Ian Watson
(Gollancz collectors' edition, £9.99, 221 pages, paperback, first published 1975, this edition 18 April 2002.)

cover scanDon't read the back cover, okay?

This fine if slightly flawed novel in Gollancz's second string reissue series has stood up to the ravages of time well, but it stands up to the ravages of its blurb writer with less success. The Jonah Kit is a novel whose ending, whilst not a huge twist, is a finely-crafted balancing of tensions: building steadily, leaving the reader dangling between what one might hope for as an outcome and a darker, more desolate alternative. Watson does an excellent job of leaving the options open until the end. But the blurb writer, with one casual sentence, removes that suspense: we know which way the die will fall and it's just a matter of detail, and of admiring the workings whilst not being in a position to benefit. If I were Ian Watson I'd be mightily pissed off.

The Jonah Kit opens with a whale swimming through the depths, cruising over an undersea mountain range, heading up to where it can glimpse the sky. But why should it find the sight of sky so comforting? Why does it have insubstantial memories of being inside a submarine, of making love to someone in open air, under a dark sky...?

Elsewhere in this multi-stranded novel, a Soviet -- for this is a novel of the Cold War -- research project is looking into military uses of the oceans, and also the economic uses: controlling the oil and mineral wealth of the deep. Then a boy goes missing. Not an ordinary boy, though: he's a boy who thinks he is a spaceman, a boy who builds strange models from anything that comes to hand, a boy who gets very excited when he comes anywhere near a cetacean.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, deep in the Mexican desert, a group of American astronomers, not content with their leader already having won a Nobel for discovering a sister galaxy to our own, are debating how to announce their latest discovery: an announcement which could genuinely change everything.

While doing so, they go to the cliffs to watch the migrating whales...

The Jonah Kit is a novel which pretty much has everything a decent SF novel should have: big ideas, intrigue, characters about whom you care.

It struggles a little, perhaps, from talking heads dialogue (where, for example, an Italian journalist seems to exist merely to voice an alternative interpretation to that of the Big Name Astronomer) and a sense of haste (the shifting of location from Mexico to Japan to the Soviet Union towards the end seems rushed, although maybe only in comparison to the leisurely pace of today's typically-padded storytelling).

As a reviewer, I can't help but think of it in the terms of the most recent book I've read: Paul Di Filippo's A Year in the Linear City (reviewed elsewhere on this site). In the strange world of Di Filippo's novella, speculative fiction is known as "cosmogonic fiction", and his writer-protagonist argues that the best CF should combine style, character and ideas into a single entity, each constituent inseparable from the mix. The Jonah Kit is very fine cosmogonic fiction indeed, with big ideas at its centre, but inseparable from a tense and intense characterisation, thriller plotting and clean, good writing.

But beneath the surface layers, The Jonah Kit is about something more subtle -- it is a novel about communication: humans with aliens; humans with other, more local, aliens, the whales and dolphins; humans with other human groups -- the Cold War, the astronomers and the local Mezapico people who communicate with each other by whistle language; and, above all, humans with other individuals -- friends, colleagues, lovers.

We are all aliens. We all need translating, interpreting.

The Jonah Kit, Ian Watson's second novel, is reissued by Gollancz in their Collectors' Edition series nearly thirty years after it first appeared.

The politics of these reissues series is intriguing. Gollancz, alone, have four: SF Masterworks (paperback); Fantasy Masterworks; SF Masterworks (hardback); and these yellow-jacketed Collectors' Editions. Each of these series, naturally, includes some fantastic work, and also a selection of interesting and simply good work. The SF/F divide is a reasonably straightforward one in most cases (notwithstanding the decades-old debate about genre boundaries!), but when is a novel merely a collectors' edition and not a masterwork? The yellow-jacket series treads a very fine line: reissuing some worthy and significant titles under an imprint that could easily appear to be reserved for also-rans. It says a lot for the diversity and richness of our genres that there is so much fine work like The Jonah Kit around to make this series merely different and not second best.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 13 July 2002