Sunfall – Jim Al-Khalili

The purpose of science is to demystify the unknown, to understand the processes of the world, to reveal the truth behind the apparent; it is not the role of science to be comforting but to be honest, even if the mounting evidence indicates that it the end of life on Earth is imminent and unavoidable.

The debut novel of physicist and science communicator Professor Jim Al-Khalili, launched at the Edinburgh Science Festival, Sunfall is a near-future technothriller of a global threat caused not by the actions of humanity but by the failure of the natural defences against high energy cosmic rays and coronal mass ejections.

The magnetic field of the Earth weakening as it approaches its periodic “flip,” the public are assured that this is a normal if rare event already overdue and that once the flip is complete that the danger will be over, but a young cyberhacker from Tehran, computer science student Shireen Darvish, has uncovered evidence than in fact the data has been manipulated to falsify conclusions.

While those behind the conspiracy may simply wish to prevent panic as in the novels of Charles Eric Maine, it also means that those who will suffer the worst and fastest effects will be totally unprepared, so Shireen takes action, reaching out to Sarah Maitlin of the Solar Science Institute in Rio who has found herself the public face of the crisis through unfortunate happenstance and her subsequent appointment to a United Nations panel.

The science clear, the danger imminent, the options are few and unproven, but dark matter physicist and mathematician Marc Bruckner has an idea, a wild card he must throw on the table, not realising the game has already been rigged by the agents of a doomsday cult calling themselves the Purifiers who wish to see the Earth and humanity burn.

Al-Khalili’s emphasis on clear communication of his ideas rather than a dramatic or evocative style, that is not to say that Sunfall is not bursting with ideas, the year 2041 recognisable but full of change and innovation, some of it explored as relevant to the plot and some only mentioned in passing such as the implication of Lunar habitats and Martian exploration.

Climate change is an accepted part of this world and mitigated through changes in human behaviour, a crisis which has been recognised and largely avoided by evidence-based policies, leading to hope that this new emergency can be handled with a similar cohesive global effort of international political and corporate will and interdisciplinary collaboration.

The underlying science so complex and specialised that it is possible to be an authority in one field while remaining ignorant of developments in another which might, if shared, provide a crucial insight, Sarah is an expert on the Sun but not planetary magnetic fields, although fortunately her UN associate Gabriel Aguda is able to tell her of the Laschamp Excursion, a twitch in the Earth’s magnetic field 40,000 years ago which may be linked to the extinction of the Neanderthals.

The amount of energy in a planetary weather system so incomprehensibly vast that any disruption which pours in more energy and exacerbates it able to cause unpredictable consequences of astonishing rapidity and terrifying magnitude, once the warning signs have become sufficient to penetrate bureaucratic inertia it is too late, and that is only a prelude to the solar wind stripping the atmosphere completely.

With obvious parallels with the “grand achievement in a hostile environment” works of Arthur C Clarke, particularly The Fountains of Paradise, The Ghost from the Grand Banks and The Hammer of God, the characters are thin, often little more than mouthpieces for the ideas, and the heavy-handed threat of the Purifiers is never convincing in their resolve, their actions or their eventual unmasking by a character once again charging into danger single-handed, nor is Al-Khalili as inquisitive as Carl Sagan was in Contact where asides on mathematics, history and culture added detail and colour to the canvas, but for a daring first leap into a challenging new discipline Sunfall is overall a swift and satisfying read.

Sunfall is available from now from Bantam Press



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