Fiction Reviews


(2019) Jim Al-Khalili, Bantam, £12.99, hrdbk, 368pp, ISBN 978-0-593-07742-9


Sunfall is a pleasant read. The author, Jim Al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist so I was expecting lots of science and some dodgy fiction, but I’m pleased to say the story moves along well, even though it leans more to Dan Brown than anything more cerebral.

It is a slightly different take on the ‘we’re all doomed’ narrative of many current novels. I have always found end of the world novels fascinating but zombies and climate change are definitely getting overworked, so it’s nice to see a magnetic field story hitting the shelves.

Yes, magnetic field. Turns out that every 300,000 years or so the Earth’s magnetic field flips from north to south and all the water in the world changes direction as it rushes down the plug hole. And we’re overdue for a flip. That I knew, but what I didn’t know is that each flip is accompanied by a before and after weakening of the magnetic field, potentially leading to catastrophic solar flares taking advantage of our diminished protection to zap us with lots of extinction-level radiation. All true, apparently, and I’m not about to argue with the PhD guy.  (Editorial note: actually no extinctions have been associated with magnetic reversals in the geological record, though we are over due for a reversal.)  In fact, if the plot is to be entirely believed, the magnetic field switch off could last for quite some time.  So the Sunfall scientists come up with interesting ways to keep us all alive, with varying degrees of (non) success, until the desperate and the outlandish become the only options available…

We follow scientists Sarah Maitlin and Marc Bruckner as they battle through the science and the politics of world-ending. Inevitably, some people actually want the world to end, which all adds to the tension. There’s an Iranian computer hacker in there too, who ends up immersing herself in a VR world as the clock ticks down, trying to talk down a super-bright and super-stubborn AI.

I like the main characters, though they’re a bit by the numbers, and I’d have preferred the bad guys to be less one-dimensional (there’s an unintentionally amusing bit near the end where the main bad guy has captured and is about to kill Sarah, but pauses, Bond villain style, to tell her all about his mad scheme). Although the plot is standard end-of-the-world fare (though the science may be fresh) it’s a competent first novel, though not a first published book – the author’s got a growing list of published (and well regarded) non-fiction. He also does a lot of work for the BBC – including a series for BBC America about the science of Doctor Who – so he’ll already be familiar to many readers.

Competent and entertaining.  Not bad for a first novel.

Mark Bilsborough

Into magnetic reversal disaster?  See also Faraday's Orphans.


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