Review: Sunfall

This review contains spoilers.

Science broadcaster and nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili’s debut SF novel Sunfall comprehensively puts paid to the notion that “everyone has a novel in them”. A disaster story set in a near future when the Earth’s weakening magnetic field puts everyone on the planet at risk from the radiation emitted in solar flares, it’s little more than a collection of reheated cliches stuck together with technobabble. Scientifically accurate technobabble, sure. But technobabble nevertheless.

Al-Khalili’s chief protagonists are British scientists Sarah and Mark, who are working on a solution to the magnetic field problem, and young Iranian hacker Shireen, who’s committed to bringing the world the truth about the scale of the catastrophe the Earth faces, having discovered evidence of a cover-up. Various governments want to keep the scale of the crisis from the public consciousness in order (inevitably) to prevent panic, and there are fundamentalist millenarian groups in the mix too who want to prevent the scientists saving the Earth in the belief that the crisis represents a Rapture of sorts. The tensions, in other words, are all very familiar: there’s little going on plot-wise that you wouldn’t expect to spot in a reasonably well-constructed disaster movie.

What is quite effective – although again hardly novel – is the way Al-Khalili interleaves his more science-y Saving the World chapters with vignettes about ordinary (and not-so-ordinary) people who are caught up in weather disasters caused by the weakening of the magnetic field. It’s a time-honoured technique that I’ve seen used to best effect in Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls: we get to know these characters a little bit, find out a bit about their hopes and dreams and lives, before, BAM, something terrible happens to them. We think they’re going to be major players in the story, and their abrupt exit from it brings home the tragedy of their deaths. But while in The Shining Girls this strategy underlines Beukes’ anger about the ongoing scourge of gendered violence, its use in Sunfall feels less purposeful. I read the novel at the end of August last year, when Hurricane Ida was sweeping through the Americas and it felt like the whole world was literally burning; the sections about impossible storms causing huge disasters in inhabited areas resonated hard. But the comparison with human-caused climate change does no favours for Sunfall. It feels quaint and naïve to be worrying about a potential future magnetic field collapse, however plausible the science may be, when the threat of a real global warming apocalypse is so imminent.

The core of the novel is a paean to science, to the value of scientific endeavour and collaboration, as opposed to the self-involved machinations of politicians and governments and the paranoid populism of fundamentalist religious groups. (There’s a faint anti-religious sentiment running throughout the text – nothing as overt as the sort of thing Richard Dawkins might come out with, but certainly making future!Iran a wholly secular society is a choice that feels quite bound up with particular ideas of what a modern society looks like.) Which – sure! I’m very on board with this. The work of science – of any academic discipline – is a wonderful thing that gets fictionalised all too rarely. It’s work that can and will change the world. But the novel lacks confidence in – how interesting that work is, I guess. Rarely do we see anyone actually doing science: if Sarah and Mark aren’t infodumping technical detail, they’re rescuing kidnapped loved ones or staving off terrorist attacks or marvelling at the high and exalted circles they’ve found themselves in.

So there’s nothing compelling, really, in the meat of the book to dilute those climate change anxieties that aren’t really climate change anxieties. And divorcing those anxieties from their proper context in the way that Al-Khalili does, removing any sense of human complicity in the deaths of his characters, gives the novel an escapist quality that I’m not fully on board with. It’s easy for Al-Khalili’s scientists to solve their climate problem. Their solution might not be logistically straightforward, and it does have the significant drawback that the Earth might explode if something goes wrong, but once it’s done it’s done. A single monumental task, and the Earth is saved. And there is no collective burden of guilt to carry for all those deaths, because they were literally no-one’s fault. There are enough people in the real world denying the reality of human-caused climate change that I’m not really interested in a text that denies or dilutes that reality, even fictionally. And no single scientific breakthrough is going to save us, either. It comes, once again, down to work: saving our Earth will take decades of sustained, incremental effort. There will be no single, heroic moment of revelation and triumph.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Sunfall would never have been published were it not for Al-Khalili’s established platform. It has nothing particularly new or particularly interesting to say, and its reliance on familiar cliches and plot structures, coupled with its infodumpy dialogue, robs it of any momentum or sense of pace it might otherwise have had. There are lots of good climate-anxiety novels out there (Valente’s The Past is Red, anyone?), and several good ones on the work of science: like, go and read some Kim Stanley Robinson! Not this.

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