Reviewed by Madeleine Beresford
Susan Greenfield is best known for her popular science books on the brain and for popularizing science. In theory, 2121 ought to be similarly accessible: an intelligent rumination on the human mind and its capabilities. There are several problems with this theory.
Firstly, Greenfield’s writing style is difficult, and the first few chapters feel particularly stilted. Her sentences are long, overly labored: they become scientist’s sentences. Fred, the character delivering these sentences, is a neuroscientist, so perhaps this is intentional. But whatever the reason, it feels like this stylistic choice hinders the story.
Secondly, Greenfield forgets that reader may not be as deeply interested in the details of scientific study as she is: the lengthy explanations of Fred’s work and later the states of mind of the other two main characters, Zelda and Sim, are complex and sometimes you feel as though the book strays into non-fiction.
Having said this, many of the ideas investigated are interesting and it is refreshing to read a science fiction book written by a neuroscientist. Science fiction has a fine tradition of physicists turned writers in their downtime, but not so many neuroscientists. It doesn’t have so many women either, and I suspect Greenfield may be more harshly judged in the light of this. The premise is that Fred, a neuroscientist for the Neo-Puritans, a breakaway civilization dedicated to ‘useful’ thought rather than the mindless hedonism of the main society, leaves his home and is sent to study the ‘Others’, the society that has remained with advanced technology but reduced social and philosophical skills.
The slow-building story is via Fred’s reports to a sinister figure who is later revealed to be one of the ‘directors’ of the NPs society, and by reflections from the other players, most notably Sim, a young ‘Other’ who in the end becomes a self-defined outcast from both societies. The key focus is of the work Fred is doing on ‘improving’ Sim’s cognitive ability, and defining her sense of self against the array of distractions that her environment provides for her. That Greenfield calls this overload of sensation ‘Yakawow’, for ‘Yuck’ and ‘Wow’, does feel a slightly dated linguistic choice, but I can think of worse interpretations of future language – some in the work of Margaret Atwood, for example.
What is interesting is that the people in both societies have ceded control over their everyday lives to invisible governing bodies, and that in each case they do not seem to care. The NPs live their days in pre-set schedules, and the Others are assigned housing by an ominous central organization that simply bulldozes old houses and sweeps away the young people into recently built ‘dwellings’. Familial ties in both are cut by society. The question 2121 asks is deceptively simple: what could the near future look like, and how would it shape our minds? The way Greenfield gets to an answer is in itself interesting, and while the NP society appears to be superior at first glance, it is revealed as just as fallible as that of the Others.
However, there is one thing that it is almost impossible not to mention. The main character, Fred, has a lilac bicycle that he is obsessed with. He likes to ride away on the bicycle in order to avoid conversation with another character, Zelda. You might think that writing a lilac bicycle into a science fiction book would have an air of farce, and that is true – it becomes comical, one man’s desire to escape civilization…on a bicycle. I’m not sure what the lilac bicycle is doing in the book other than as a means to allow Fred to escape the sensory overload of the ‘Others’ dwellings, but perhaps other readers – who like cycling more – might view it differently.
I found this book hard to review. My instinct at first was to complain about the stilted sentences and the lilac bicycle, the male scientist and the female subject, and to say that scientists think that writing is easy, and it is not. And yet. As I read it, I did find myself thinking about the affects of the environment upon the mind, on the fallibility of science and scientists, and about the importance of understanding our own minds. In terms of understanding the real impact technology has upon brains, we are at the beginning of a long road. Science fiction is certainly the place to interrogate these questions, and I applaud Greenfield for being brave enough to do so. There are not enough scientists writing fiction, and writers truly engaging with science. Whether 2121 succeeds as a work of fiction I am not quite sure.
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