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)