Jim Al-Khalili wanted his science fiction book to show not how science threatens the world, but how it could save it.
This is not surprising from the man who is professor of public engagement in science and who is its great champion on BBC 4’s popular The Life Scientific. “A lot of sci-fi is full of the fearfulness of what science could do and how it has engineered threats,” he told ChipLitFest’s first audience on Tuesday night. “Instead I wanted to show the glee of the potential of science.”
Jim’s first novel, Sunfall, is a ‘hard’ sci-fi – set in a realistic near future. The year 2041 is just far enough away for Fabiola Gianotti, the present head of CERN (home of the Hadron Collider), who will by then be 74, to feature in his novel as an avatar of her future self. Jim gained her permission for this, as he explained in a relaxed conversation with sci-fi writer and academic Una McCormack. He may be a novice novelist, but he has the great advantage of having a huge network of scientist friends available to validate his plotting and provide inspiration for his characters. Could this posited particle have this effect and create that scenario? He just needed to pop his head round the door of his neighbour at work (at the University of Surrey), who happens to be the leading man on the black holes, and check. The book’s supposition is based around the work of a solar scientist he knows well and there are similarities between her and one of his strongest characters in the book.
His well-connectedness in science is a huge advantage, and he has published many books, but he charmingly admitted that writing novels was a much greater challenge that he expected. It came about at the launch of his most recent science book when he batted away his publisher’s what next? question with how about a novel. “It was a throwaway line,” he explained. “But it planted a seed. And after all, how hard could it be?” Harder than he thought, as he found out. But he applied his great mind to the task and with the support of an editor who reminded him about the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle, he plotted out a three-act story. He turned to Stephen King’s book on How to Write in order to pick up tips from the master storyteller, and it was not long before he discovered the great joy of novel-writing – when characters begin to take on lives of their own and dictate to the writer how they would behave.
Jim’s enthusiasm for science held the audience thoroughly engaged last night. Most of their questions to him were about his radio broadcasts and his Life Scientific programme, but judging by those queuing up afterwards to buy his novel and have it signed, he is right – there is a tremendous appetite to have science explained, understood and brought alive.
Jim’s book is published on 18 April – below is a summary by his publishers, Penguin. Signed copies are available at Jaffé & Neale Book Shop.
From renowned theoretical physicist, broadcaster and author Jim Al-Khalili, comes this thrilling debut novel drawing on cutting-edge science and set in a near-future full of dazzling technologies.
2041 and the world as we know it grinds to a halt. Our planet seems to be turning against itself - it would appear that the magnetic field, that protects life on Earth from deadly radiation from space, is failing . . .
Desperate to quell the mass hysteria that would surely follow, world governments have concealed this rapidly emerging Armageddon. But a young Iranian hacktivist stumbles across the truth, and it becomes a race against time to reactivate the earth's core using beams of dark matter.
As a small team of brave and brilliant scientists battle to find a way of transforming theory into practice, they face a fanatical group intent on pursuing their own endgame agenda: for they believe mankind to be a plague upon this earth and will do anything, commit any crime, to ensure that the project fails . . .
And so bring about humanity's end.