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

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism