Susan Greenfield's 2121: the worst science fiction book ever written?

The neuroscientist's first novel has clunking cliches, terrible characters and dialogue about the "dissociation of reproduction from copulation". Finishing it has become a nerd challenge, writes Helen Lewis.

Normally when I’m reviewing a book I studiously avoid any mention of it, so that my impressions aren’t clouded by anyone’s else opinion. But after suffering through the first 70 pages of Susan Greenfield’s debut novel, I turned to two science writers I knew were also reviewing it. Does it get better? Does a plot start soon? “If you can get past the first few terrible chapters, it’s vertically downhill,” said the geneticist and broadcaster Adam Rutherford, in the cheery tones of someone who had survived an unpleasant experience and was relishing it happening to someone else. “Hang on until the sex scene,” counselled the Guardian’s Martin Robbins.

To understand why reaching the end of this book has become a competitive sport among nerds, you have to understand the unique position of Susan Greenfield in British public life. She is perhaps our best-known living female scientist: a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, the recipient of a life peerage in 2001 and director of the Royal Institution, home of the Christmas lectures, from 1998 to 2010. By any standards, it is a hugely successful career. 
 
But in the past five years, science writers and broadcasters have become increasingly uncomfortable about Greenfield. She was made redundant from the RI in 2010; at the time, the 211-year-old charity was £3m in debt after an overambitious £22m renovation, intended to turn it into a “Groucho Club for science”. Unfortunately it turned out that Britain’s scientists, being less wankerish than Britain’s media, didn’t really want their own Groucho Club. (Greenfield claimed sexism played a part in her downfall and it’s true that interviews invariably included a reference to her surprising love of miniskirts, as if IQ were inversely proportional to the height of your hemline.)
 
After her dismissal from the RI, several writers went public with their concerns about Greenfield’s whole approach to increasing the public understanding of science. In 2009, she had written a Daily Mail piece which claimed that young people were going to hell in an online handcart: “This games-driven generation interpret the world through screen-shaped eyes. It’s almost as if something hasn’t really happened until it’s been posted on Facebook, Bebo or YouTube.” (Thankfully, the Great Bebo Threat has been ameliorated by the fact no one goes on it any more.) In a House of Lords debate that year, she wondered aloud if rising rates of autism were due to better diagnosis or “increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships”. She also suggested that there might be a link between computer use and obesity. 
 
All these musings were written up in the respectful tones reserved for a scientist delivering tablets of evidence-based stone from the mountaintop. There was only one problem: Greenfield hadn’t done any research into the topics on which she was pronouncing from her Royal Institution pulpit. She had not submitted herself to the old-fashioned idea of formulating a hypothesis, testing it, and then submitting the conclusions for peer review. In fact, she proudly announced, she’d never even been on Facebook.
 
She now says that the concept of “mind change” – her headline-friendly coinage for the natural plasticity of the brain – was not intended to imply a value judgement. “It doesn’t say it’s good or bad. If you want to read something into that, that’s your problem,” she told the Independent on 30 June this year. So, to recap: as long as you don’t mind being fat, having a developmental disorder, or losing your sense of self entirely, computers are just peachy.
 
This is the background against which her debut novel (or “her latest work of fiction”, as unkind bloggers are calling it) is being judged. It is set in a future where excessive computer use has eroded human beings’ sense of self and made them slaves to their machines. One group, the Neo-Puritans or Neo-Platonics, escaped beyond some conveniently impassable mountains, and uses only screens at work (though they do have a gizmo called the Helmet, which they plonk on kids to make them learn stuff. No one tell Michael Gove). The others – here called the “Others”, with Greenfield’s typical flair for the literary – are bovine pleasure-seekers who have mired themselves in an endless present.
 
The prose is a mess. There are errant commas, clunking clichés and banal phrases such as “tossed about in a vast sea of heightened emotions devoid of passions”. Everyone seems weirdly obsessed with comparing their current situation with that in the early 21st century – “she gestured to the high-speed pod, still recognisable as a distant descendant of its predecessors from a century or two ago” – which, when you think about it, makes as much sense as a writer now describing a car as “still reminiscent of a 19th century landau”.
 
Worse still, for page after desolate page, nothing happens. Processions of characters simply tell the reader about how profoundly their lives have been affected by using digital technologies, with an uncanny degree of selfawareness. There are ladlefuls of gloopy exposition barely disguised as dialogue: “It was the, er, dissociation of reproduction from copulation that our forefathers saw as the start of the deterioration in human relations, and increased cyber-onanism.”
 
A third of the way in, I gave up. I couldn’t take any more. Shamefully, I didn’t even hang on until the sex scene.
 

2121: a Tale from the Next Century by Susan Greenfield (Head of Zeus, 368pp, £14.99)

An artwork called My Soul by Katharine Dowson, depicting the brain. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle