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

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood