Books

Solar by Ian McEwan

Michael Beard is a glaringly repellent creation, a somewhat-deserving winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and a definitively deserving winner of some sort of uber-Nobel Prize in whoring, lying, stealing, face-stuffing, and sneaking around.


Solar

Publisher: Doubleday/Nan Talese
Length: 304 pages
Author: Ian McEwan
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-03
Amazon

There is hardly a more contentious intellectual and scientific issue today than anthropogenic global warming (AGW.) At a pro-AGW blog like Real Climate (“pro” in the sense that its participants think the phenomenon is real and end-of-times terrifying), some postings receive as many as 900 comments.

Meanwhile, an anti-AGW blog, Watts Up With That, has had nearly 40 million hits to date, and also receives hundreds of comments per article. On both types of sites, the commenters mix scientific analysis in support of their favored thesis with a breathtaking degree of vituperation and condescension for their opponents, usually expressed in an anonymous, and therefore self-indicting, form.

The debate has become very polluted, and although the pro-AGW forces like to blame the poisoned atmosphere on “fossil-fuel funded” anti-AGW smear campaigns, the bad behavior began with the pro-AGW forces, in their premature and presumptuous attempts to declare that “the debate is over” and “the science is settled”, in their reprehensible comparisons of AGW skeptics to Holocaust deniers, and in their panic-mongering attempts to ascribe nearly every observed or imaginary fluctuation in our natural world (but only those of the negative kind!) to carbon emissions. Their attempts to hide and manipulate underlying data, as highlighted by the recent “Climategate’ scandal, haven’t helped their credibility much, either.

Our planet is indeed threatened by many malign influences, of which carbon dioxide is only one -- albeit one of the most highly debated -- and yet, in their obsessive focus on this compound (and resultant apathy about the emerging and established economies that are dependent upon carbon-emitting fossil fuels for their very existence) the pro-AGW forces have managed to suck all of the air out of the environmental debate. In the process, they have overshadowed the advocacy of the quieter, more reasoned, and less panicky advocates of a healthier relationship with our planet. If you‘re not bellowing these days, you‘re just not being heard.

You’d think that our finest novelists would be playing a role in moderating -- in both senses of that word -- this shouting match. Historically, after all, many of our best fiction writers -- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and others -- have focused on the great issues of their age, and even influenced the terms of public debate for the better.

However, global warming discussion is dominated by scientists, not authors -- climatologists, long-range weather forecasters, physicists, statisticians, geologists, dendrochronologists, and chemists -- and by the rank amateurs who interpret, and often misrepresent, their conclusions for the blogosphere. Our novelists, by and large, are nowhere to be seen, though Margaret Atwood has published highly regarded speculative fictions on environmental themes.

Indeed, the most influential writer who has directly addressed the topic of global warming is, of all people, the late Michael Crichton, whose novel State of Fear represents one of the first and most widely read critiques of global warming orthodoxy. With all due respect to his memory, having an airport-novel lowbrow like Crichton as one of its leading expostulators hurts the credibility of anti-AGW skeptics only a little less than the fact that some of their number are also skeptical of genuinely settled science such as evolution.

Into the breach, now, strolls the highly esteemed and certainly anything but lowbrow Ian McEwan, whose dully titled new novel Solar is described in its publicity materials as “a comedy dealing directly with the crises of climate change today.”

That description isn’t wholly accurate, unfortunately, and as a result -- though Solar is very readable, extremely funny, and principally an unforgettable portrait of a uniquely piggish physicist -- McEwan does not in any away take up the torch posthumously offered by his in-every-other-way-inferior colleague, Crichton. Solar is a comedy alright, but a human comedy and not a scientific one, and the reader finishes the book with great satisfaction at its pleasures mingled with puzzlement about precisely where McEwan himself stands on the topic of anthropogenic global warming.

McEwan’s protagonist, Michael Beard, is a glaringly repellent creation, a somewhat-deserving winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and a definitively deserving winner of some sort of uber-Nobel Prize in whoring, lying, stealing, face-stuffing, and sneaking around. A greasy, greedy, corpulent, balding, potato-chip gobbling glob of a man, he also is improbably successful with women or, depending on how you look at it, incredibly unsuccessful -- he’s on his fifth marriage and has had eleven extramarital affairs just in the short span of his most recent lifelong commitment.

He’s hardly a scientist at all any more: “Two decades had passed since he last sat down in silence and solitude for hours on end, pencil and pad in hand, to do some thinking, to have an original hypothesis, play with it, pursue it, tease it into life.”

What he does, instead (in addition to playing with his own orifices and those of others) is sign up for international “initiatives”, attend conferences and go on junkets, write references and peer reviews, give lectures about his one moment of intellectual transcendence -- his postulation of the Nobel-winning “Beard-Einstein Conflation” -- and concoct dubious alternative-energy schemes that skirt the edges of legality.

Before getting involved in the solar-energy boondoggle that dominates the second half of the book, Beard goes on an absurd, all-expenses-paid junket to Spitzbergen, near the North Pole, supposedly to “see global warming for himself”. The carbon emitted by his flight and those of his fellow junketeers, and “60 hot meals a day served in polar conditions would be offset by planting 3,000 trees in Venezuela as soon as a site could be identified and local officials bribed”.

Once at the “North Pole”, Beard makes a frozen ass of himself, and at one point, in a sequence whose sustained hilarity is reminiscent of Philip Roth’s comic masterpiece Sabbath’s Theater, is persuaded to his horror that he has accidentally amputated his own penis.

In this and in other portions of the novel, McEwan demonstrates once again that he is a master of the novelistic set-piece. But as in other authors who construct novels out of set pieces, there’s sometimes something a little mechanical and schematic about McEwan’s work, which so often seems to concern the intrusion of something terrible into the warm and comfortable sphere of a settled citizen. As in his recent novels Saturday and Enduring Love, so too in Solar -- he sets ’em up, and he knocks ’em down. The only difference, in Solar, is that the set-up, and the knock-down, are the work of the portly physicist himself.

As Beard caroms around England, America and the North Pole, swiving, swilling, stealing, barfing, and covering up deaths, the reader can see Beard’s rapidly approaching fate a mile away. That doesn’t make it any less funny, or any less scathing in its examination of how opportunists can attach themselves, leech-like, to the latest intellectual fad.

But McEwan is a bit too dodgy, at the end, about whether he thinks there’s any substance behind the scientific groupthink about global warming, or for that matter behind the more-hopeful acolytes of large-scale solar energy projects, as if he’s hedging his bets against future scientific revelations. He gives voice to both sides of the debate, but principally through the thoughts of Beard himself as he periodically switches positions to better feed his gaping maw. Beard begins by thinking:

There was an Old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over the centuries, to believe that one was always living at the end of days, that one’s own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world, and therefore made more sense, or was just a little less irrelevant.

By the end, before his own imminent demise, Beard has converted, more or less, and in his uniquely opportunistic fashion, to a global warming True Believer. But Beard’s ultimate and actual belief system, as well as the tone of McEwan’s satire, is best exemplified at the very end, when his solar-energy business partner, Toby, begins to “worry” about increasing evidence that the globe really isn’t warming at all. Beard’s response? “Toby, listen. We’re facing a catastrophe. Relax.”

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