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James Flint
St. Martin's Press, 414 pages

James Flint
James Flint was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1968 and grew up in the surrounding area. He attended the University of Oxford before moving to London to be a jazz musician. Little success convinced him to move to Brooklyn, New York. Some time later he returned to England to do his MA at the University of Warwick. Moving back to London, Flint worked briefly as an editor at Wired UK before it folded.

James Flint Website
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A review by Greg L. Johnson

The line separating science fiction from mainstream literature becomes fuzzier all the time. Since definitions are in themselves a matter of drawing lines, it becomes harder and harder to say just what is science fiction and what is not. Most definitions of SF take into account the trappings of the genre, spaceships and aliens and the high-tech gadgets that we all know and love. Another way to look at science fiction is as fiction that portrays the world from a viewpoint that is based on scientific thinking. This is why Cryptonomicon was a science fiction novel, and it is why Habitus, a dense, experimental, quirky, funny, poetic and puzzling book from James Flint, is also a science fiction novel.

Habitus is ostensibly the story of three characters growing up as the post-World War II world changes into the Information Age. Jennifer Several is an English girl with a talent for television and shoplifting. Joel Kluge is the son of an Hasidic baker, whose bagels with a möbius twist help inspire Joel's gift for mathematics. The third, Judd Axelrod, is a California kid with a feeling for games of chance. Above them all, occasionally commenting on their activities, is Laika, the first dog in space. But the overall most important characteristic of Habitus is the language.

This is the novel of a writer with a tremendous talent for words. And the words that Flint chooses show a great concern with the language of science. In the same way that Cryptonomicon was infused with the science of cryptography, the language of Habitus is drawn from the ideas of biology and mathematics and the physics of information and probability. Here's an example drawn from the musings attributed to Laika, as she orbits the Earth:

Here is what Laika saw when she gazed from her craft: a sea reclaiming the land as its own, twisting, extending, contorting, unfolding itself in the attempt, taking the vast processes of its currents and chemicals and waves and tides and condensing them down to form life, a handy tool in the struggle, teeming unicell agents that could be relied on to fan out and infiltrate, multiply and report, chuckle and swarm. And even, unexpectedly, band together, form groups, organisms: plankton and algae, anemone and arthropod, lobopod and snail. Then, later, fungus and plant, grass and gymnosperm, lizard and fly, flower and wasp, mammal and tree: muliticellular creatures that carried the offensive further and further inland -- interzone I think I've found you -- across mountains and deserts, tundra and bog, until they were able to dance rituals in border towns, able to order themselves, to calm themselves, able to prepare for the conquest of space.
While the language of Habitus is drawn from the world of science, the book lacks the usual symbols of science fiction. But there are plenty of other things here for the SF reader to latch onto. Jennifer reads Heinlein. Joel's wish to reconcile the Kabbalah with particle physics is strongly reminiscent of Horselover Fat's struggles with gnosticism in Valis. And Emma, the baby whose genetic make-up improbably includes the DNA of Jennifer, Joel, and Judd, is only the latest in a line of mutant offspring that runs from Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" to the next evolutionary step children in Darwin's Radio.

The prose and ideas of Habitus are able to carry the novel a long way. Unfortunately, the book is so much a journey of discovery that Flint is unable to find a good way to stop, and the novel fizzles out in a series of surrealistic chase scenes and sometimes horrific images. Until that time, though, Habitus is undoubtedly the work of a new writer who has already found his own unique voice and style.

If what you're looking for is a book that will take you twenty thousand light years to strange, alien worlds, Habitus is not the book you're after. But if you're in the mood for a novel that will give you a fresh perspective on the strange world you live in now, which will dazzle you with its unusual yet lyrical prose, and which might force you to change your definition of what a science fiction novel is, then Habitus may be just the book for you.

Copyright © 2000 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson pursues definitions of science fiction in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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