Book review: Sunfall by Jim Al-Khalili

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

It is, once again poor beleaguered citizens of planet earth, the end of the world as we know it.

Or, at least the possible end of the world, anyway.

In Jim Al-Khalili 2014-set, fast-paced race to a likely extinction line, Sunfall, there’s a very good chance that humanity is facing the very real likelihood of death by a thousand coronal mass ejections (CMEs) by the sun.

Usually the giver and sustainer of life, it is now turning, through no real fault of its own, into a destroyer, devastating our home planet which is increasingly unable to repel the radiation-heavy intrusions into our atmosphere which in earlier times, bolstered by a healthy, string magnetic field, is no longer able to stop these destructive blasts reaching the surface.

Much the earth’s arid sister planet Mars, which lost water and maybe even life eons ago when it’s own atmosphere bubbled away to nothing, we are facing the loss of all life on the planet, a crisis which, surprise surprise, the world’s governments have chosen to cover up lest everyone panic.

Supposedly they are working on a surefire planet to repel the CMEs but while they do not, humanity is going about normal everyday life, utterly unaware their continued existence hangs in the balance.

That is, until an Iranian hacktivist, Shiree, discovers the biggest secret in the history of humanity and releases the information via English solar physicist Dr Sara Maitlin who is happily working away at a facility in Brazil until events conspire to make the unofficial face of the end of the world.

“However, as the novelty of the spectacle began to wear off, Marc got a niggling feeling that he was missing something obvious. Something very important. The thought germinated and grew in his mind, despite the wine that was blunting his analytical skills. Then it suddenly hit him. He ran a quick mental check to make sure he’d got his bearings right. The impressive Aurora Australis he was looking at was in completely the wrong direction. It should have been in the southern sky, towards the Pole. But this display was to the north. How the hell was that even possible?” (P. 18)

A well-known quantum physicist, author and broadcaster whom author Marcus du Sautoy has christened “the Carl Sagan of our generation, Al- Khalili is a man who really knows his physics, and who is, quite remarkably, able to fold it into a thrilling narrative and make dense subject matter feel reasonably accessible.

The key word here is “reasonably”.

If you are of a scientific bent, there’s a very good chance you will have no trouble at all following along with some of the denser scientific exposition which fills the pages; there are times when so much is imparted so quickly in conversations that sometimes feel a little too clunky and information-packed, and it may be well the science geeks among us who keep up with the story without too much trouble.

However, and this is key in a story which rises and falls on how much of the science makes sense to you, most of the time Al-Khalili does an impressive job of explaining what CMEs are, how physics literally makes our world go wrong, and how the same forces which sustain us could well end up holding a metaphorical dagger to our throats.

Sunfall is, for the most part, one of those novels that is perfect for an escapist read, whether on a plane or a lazy weekend, but its great strength is that its author knows his stuff and for the most part does an exemplary job of explaining well enough that some of the more outlandish aspects of the plot feel less sensationalist than alarmingly possible.

Jim Al-Khalili (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

It is entirely fair that with the world facing all kinds of challenge from climate change and still mired in the COVID pandemic, you may not be entirely enthusiastic with plunging into this gripping 2019 read which predates the current apocalyptic tone of our lives.

But Sunfall is worth diving into because for all its reliance on potboiler plot tropes such as an imminent, catastrophic threat to all life, unlikely heroic acts by characters that haven’t done anything of the sort before this, and a possible solution that’s so gosh darn crazy it might just work (!), it actually feels like it could happen.

You will be hoping there isn’t a snowflake’s chance in a CME-bubbling hell that any of the events in the book come to pass, because no one wants to be fried alive on the street going to work, but you will read along eagerly because the scientific backing for the novel adds a level of visceral plausibility to proceedings and it’s impossible not to be swept into the book’s pell-mell race to possible salvation, complicated of course by the fact that there’s a terrorist group called the Purifiers, who fervently believe humanity should be wiped from the face of the earth.

It’s hard to say at one point what is scarier – the sun sending CMEs to a now-largely defenceless earth or the terrorists doing their violent utmost to stop those working to avert the inevitable such as Maitlin, Shireen and physicist Marc Bruckner and his colleagues from following through on their scientifically-sound but, to the layman at least, audaciously over-the-top plan.

“Sarah didn’t answer, so he decided this wasn’t the time for pleasantries or small talk and ploughed ahead. He hadn’t rehearsed what to say and realized [sic] he needed to tread carefully, both because he didn’t want to scare her off and because he didn’t know who else might be listening in.” (P. 197)

To be fair, the sun burning off all life on earth likely wins but honestly the Purifiers are not that far behind, proof that even when the end of the world of the offing and humanity is largely banding together to stop it being fulfilled, there will be those who stand back and actively work against the common good.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone with both climate change and the pandemic bringing out those who firmly believe the opposite of the good and the sensible is the only viable way forward.

In that respect, Sunfall neatly captures the inherent logic-defying madness of the psychopathic people with whom we unfortunately share the planet.

While the novel does inelegantly have a foot in each camp when it comes to whether believing in something fundamental such as religion makes you unhinged or enlightened, and has some clunky moments when the narrative flow is interrupted by earnest science-heavy chats, Sunfall is overall, engaging proof positive that you can have your science and your edge-of-the-seat exciting storyline too, and that being bystander to the end of the world may not be terrifying as much as it is an escapist pressure-relieving visceral antidote to the very real terrors all around us right now.

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