2121: A Tale from the Next Century by Susan Greenfield – review

Will ‘Internet Addiction Disorder’ be the downfall of humanity? Neuroscientist Greenfield’s foray into science fiction produces sentences that simply boggle the mind

It is sometimes the case that an individual famous for non-literary reasons decides they want to write fiction. To the ranks of Bertrand Russell, Mussolini and Julie Burchill we can now add eminent neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, internationally renowned professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and former director of the Royal Institution. People often say they "have a novel in them". By publishing 2121, Greenfield has proved that she actually did have a novel in her. Unfortunately, it's a very bad novel.

How is it bad? Let me count the ways. It is badly conceived, badly realised, badly characterised, badly paced and above all badly written. On the plus side, the typeface is nice and I quite liked the front cover art.

2121 is a novel with a thesis: that the current vogue for checking Twitter on smartphones and watching YouTube videos of cats doing endearing things is a profound pathology of humankind. This, of course, is Greenfield's "Internet Addiction Disorder"; one of her more controversial ideas. Perhaps you agree with it. If you don't, I'd hazard that reading this novel will not convert you.

In Greenfield's imagined 22nd century, the pressure of IAD has bifurcated humanity into two groups. On the one hand are the "Hedonists", who live inside geodesic domes playing video games and lack any concept beyond immediate gratification. On the other side of the mountains are the "NPs" ("neo-Puritans", "neo-Platonists"), living in square grey domiciles with grey fixtures and fittings and wearing grey clothes. Their lives are rigidly timetabled. They dedicate themselves to intellectual pursuits, especially neuroscientific research.

It is an improbable extrapolation from the present, and the novel's worldbuilding is airless and unconvincing. But what about the story? Well, for the first 100 pages, nothing at all happens. Then an NP neuroscientist called Fred is sent into the land of the "Others" to research them. He makes this journey by bicycle. This bike plays a major part in the novel (indeed, it's a more convincing character than most of the human beings) and Greenfield repeatedly tells us its colour. It is "lilac". It has "a distinctive lilac colour".

Fred infiltrates one of the Others' geodesic domes, becoming romantically involved with a woman called Zelda while performing neuroscientific research on a younger female called Sim. "Do I really want power?" Fred ponders. "What I really want is to escape on my lilac bicycle." Later, Fred copulates (Greenfield's preferred term) with Sim also, which causes Zelda a degree of jealousy. "I heard as though he had spoken at five hundred decibels. I was deafened, and the abyss cracked apart to open up yet further depths. I tumbled down blinded into a blackness that was utter, complete, final." Poor Zelda! "The cold dead heart inside me grew heavier and heavier until I was entirely just that, a cold heavy lump. Plodding towards what end?" Sim is upset too: "an unlovely trail of colourless fluid was inching unchecked from her nose. But her chin was still pointed upwards though perhaps teetering on defeat." And Fred? "I have no significance," sighs Fred. "I now feel too sad and small to ride the big, carefree bicycle."

Like Dan Brown, Greenfield is fatally drawn to adjectives and capable of sentences that simply boggle the mind: "Fred looked far away, then visibly jerked himself back to me"; "The moment can fatten, swell, bloated with the reliving of recent times with Fred, looking and listening to that creased smiling face"; "The sudden thud of silence was heavy and suffocating." The prose shifts tense queasily from past to present, and Greenfield appears innocent of the rule that a verb must agree in number with its noun. But she differs from Brown in one respect. Brown is readable; he tells a story that moves briskly along. Greenfield's repetitive narrative is clogged with myriad indigestible mini-lectures on neuroscience, most of them from Fred – "He was speaking in unremitting chunks", is how one character puts it. It's too painfully true. I laid the book down rather as Fred lays down his lilac bicycle: "He had let the bicycle fall. It lay on its side, its wheels still slowly revolving, suddenly awkward, unloved, and lovely no longer."

• Adam Roberts' Jack Glass is published by Gollancz.


Adam Roberts

The GuardianTramp

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