Books: A space dog's view of human chaos

David Papineau is blasted into orbit with a debut novel of soaring ambition; Habitus by James Flint Fourth Estate, pounds 16.99/pounds 10.99, 480pp

A habitus, James Flint tells us, is a reproductive synthesis, a binding of energy to create some natural effect. Puzzled? This bit doesn't get any better. Flint's unslim first novel is packed with incidental pleasures, but the central motif remains obscure to the end. It is something to do with the space race, the digital revolution, and a higher plane of consciousness that may be coming, 2001 style, but don't ask me more than that.

On the surface the novel is a saga of three characters. Joel Kluge, the genius child of Hassidic Jews, flees from Brooklyn to the rarefied mathematical air of the huge particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva. Jennifer Several, sired by a warders' gang-bang out of a mental patient, grows up as a middle-class bad girl in suburban Stratford. Judd Axelrod is the half- black son of a Hollywood star and an IBM executive, who escapes his child analyst for a life of communion with the dice in casinos.

A sequence of devices enables Jennifer to become jointly impregnated by both boys. The child has three sets of DNA, two hearts, a gaggle of split personalities, and some cryptic powers which promise to lead to higher things. All this is watched by Laika, the first space dog, whose intellect has been expanding since 1957 as her body has been merging with her capsule's machinery.

Despite the competition from Laika, Joel is by far the smartest of these personae, with cosmic theories of his own. He believes the universe is striving to return to its original Kabbalistic perfection, and aims to prove it by locating eddies within the flux of randomness. Inspired by a lecture on chaos theory, Joel constructs a pioneering microcomputer to compute the trajectory of roulette balls, from which he gains both a source of income and a bank of data against which to test his theories.

It is not clear how far Joel's thoughts are shared by his author, but in any case it would be a pity if anybody took them too seriously. Chaos theory is of no help in making precise predictions about single spins of roulette wheels. And even if you could make them, this wouldn't tell you anything about eddies within randomness, precisely because the predictions would focus on single events rather than probabilistic patterns.

Still, it is unfair to break Flint's butterfly of chaos theory on the wheel of literalness. Yearnings for transcendence are difficult to articulate, and there is no reason why that should be any different in a technological mode. Indeed, it is to Flint's credit that the ineffability of his ambitions never infects the precision of his highly-charged prose. We can always see what he is trying to say, even if we don't always understand why.

The cosmic stuff only takes up a small part of the book. Interspersed with the narrative are plenty of jokes, shaggy-dog stories, and snippets of historical and scientific information. Flint writes throughout with the ring of authority. Even so, there is an extra density to the scenes set in Stratford, his home town.

Sometimes, it seems as if there is a thin rite-of-passage novel struggling to get out of this expansive cyberbook. But it would be a pity if Flint trimmed his ambitions, for he is certainly capable of more. In the last paragraph he describes the orbiting space dog, as she under goes some final metamorphosis, as "a motor-cycle rider on gravity's grim wall of death ... a hopeless god, a lost cause, a blind harbour-master, a crazed midwife, a corrupted disk, a mongrel pup". Flint can churn out this kind of skywriting by the yard. The next trick will be to find something useful to do with it.

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