Susan Greenfield is a scientist who has long been interested in how the brain works, and, in particular, how it interacts with the world in which we find ourselves. Her contention, expressed in numerous articles and works of non-fiction, is that the brain’s workings can be changed, often for the worse, by external influences – in particular those stimuli we create ourselves, such as the internet. Fiction provides the ideal vehicle for working out such preoccupations, so it is perhaps natural that writing a novel would be Greenfield’s next step. 2121 is it.
The world of a century hence has most of the human population in constant thrall to their devices – constantly distracted, constantly fed, constantly stimulated. Panem et Circenses to the max. These are the ‘Others’ regarded with distaste by a small sect, the NPs (NeoPuritans or NeoPlatonics) who have instead chosen to adopt a life of physical health and rigorous mental purity. The word ‘sensational’ is practically a profanity. Our hero is Fred, a NP who is tasked with infiltrating the Others to see what can be learned from them, perhaps how they might be redeemed. Zelda, on the other hand, is a member of the Others who seems not to fit the usual acquiescent mould.
I am in no position to reveal any spoilers because, I have to admit, I didn’t get beyond page 12. I started to lose the will to live at page 9, but it took another three pages for me to realise that ploughing through 2121, however noble its intentions, would cost me many hours of my life I’d not see again for scant return in the form of enjoyment. Now, I am not in the habit of giving up on books so easily. Once I start a book, I will usually do my best to finish it, however gruelling the task. This is especially true in the case of books I am sent to review: I make a point of reading the book all the way through, no matter how unwelcome the prospect, and, over the years, there have been some pretty unwelcome prospects. 2121 was indeed a review copy (I console myself that I didn’t have to pay for it) but – and it pains me to say this – I think I can honestly say, without fear of contradiction, that I will never have read (or not, as the case may be) a book that was worse than this.
How can I make such a sweeping statement after only 12 pages? Couldn’t I have given it a bit more time to get going? Well, no. To be sure, some books I’ve read and enjoyed do take a while to get under weigh. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx is a good example. It takes a good thirty pages or so of hard tacking before it becomes plain sailing. But one gets the feeling with The Shipping News and other novels of that kind that one’s initial effort will be rewarded, because one is in the company of a writer who knows their craft. 2121 in contrast reads like the first draft by a beginner, and like so many first drafts, it is almost wholly expository. The characters are not so much wooden as concrete, and exist not for themselves – as real characters should – but as empty vessels through which the author makes her views and presence felt. Despite the small sample of 2121 I have actually read, my experience based on reading quite a lot of beginners’ SF as an editor allows me to predict with fair confidence that the pace throughout will be glacial, the action minimal, the dramatic tension sapped by info-dump. One gets the impression that Greenfield has sailed blithely on in the absence of any of the self-criticism to which beginning fiction authors subject themselves, convinced that the force of her message alone will carry the day.
If she has read any contemporary speculative fiction with attention to its craft, construction, motives, pace, drama or plot, it is not evident. The subject – the interaction between human minds and the technological environment – has been dealt with many times. Books on similar themes have included William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, Scarlett Thomas’s The End Of Mr Y, Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels, and Charles Stross’s Accelerando, and there are many others. I do not know if Greenfield has read these or indeed any recent speculative fiction. If she has, it doesn’t show.
To condemn such ambition seems both savage and sad. I hate to increase the already enormous sum of human misery, and these days I try very hard not to write bad reviews, or, at least, try to find something nice to say about a book. All I can say here is that Greenfield’s subject is worth a novel, or at least a story, and her passion for the subject should have delivered. That it fails, and fails so spectacularly, is not just sad, but tragic.
This review was originally posted in Goodreads.