The power of Solar

Novelist Ian McEwan is clearly not a climate-change sceptic, but as a writer he cannot resist showing up the humbug in the heavily ideological field of contemporary environmentalism.

James Heartfield

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Novelist Ian McEwan’s anti-hero Michael Beard is a theoretical physicist, instinctively sceptical about the apocalyptic claims of the environmentalists preoccupied with global warming.

Beard distrusts ‘anyone who routinely referred to “the planet” as proof of thinking big’, as he resists the ‘familiar litany of shrinking glaciers, encroaching deserts, dissolving coral reefs, disrupted ocean currents, rising sea levels, disappearing this and that, on and on’. Before the book ends, though, Beard stumbles into a job as the head of a government alternative energy centre, and ends up fronting the adoption of those very technologies to sceptical investors.

Arguing with his anxious American partner Toby, Beard says: ‘Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change… Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!’

Reviewers have had a poke at McEwan for making fun of climate change campaigning, and in particular for a quite funny fictionalisation of an artists and intellectuals’ retreat to Spitsbergen in 2005. Having churned out thousands of tons of carbon to get there, McEwan gently mocks, the artists made a few pointless gestures against global warming. In a way, Solar is McEwan’s own artistic outcome of the Spitsbergen trip and it has caused some unhappiness that he has bitten the hand that carried him there.

The fact that reviewers have been cooler towards Solar than they were to Atonement or On Chesil Beach shows, in a way, that the campaign to alert the public to the dangers of climate change is as shrill as McEwan suggests. McEwan plainly is not a climate-change sceptic, but as a writer he cannot resist showing up the humbug in a heavily ideological field. Another criticism is that McEwan is not a great comedy writer, and it is true that it is not a laugh-out-loud book – but it is quite funny.

One of the underlying themes in Solar is of undeserved success, built on plagiarism, of individuals always on the verge of being uncovered as a sham. This rehearses one of the things that McEwan himself has been criticised for: his reliance on other people’s memoirs, like Lucilla Andrews’ nursing stories that were mined for Atonement. What McEwan does very well, for this layman’s ear anyway, is to write plausible dialogue for scientists, who are rarely fictionalised so well. Only a sentence on p150, along the lines that the City of London breeds climate sceptics, rang false to me. Having spoken in 2008 to City bankers, I can report that they were all enthusiasts for the theory of anthropogenic climate change.

There are some very funny set-piece conflicts in Solar. There is a clash between the cultural studies professor who believes that all objective reality is ‘socially constructed’ over Beard’s ill-considered speculations that, despite our best intentions, the under-representation of women in the sciences might be genetically preordained. And there is a cruel joke at the expense of Beard’s first wife, who leaves him to join a feminist commune in Wales. In these set-pieces McEwan reads a bit like Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, railing against the idols of the age. But he is a quieter writer than that, and the satire here is even-handed, far harsher on his hero’s tragic selfishness.

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank Audacity.org. Visit his website here.

Solar, by Ian McEwan, is published by Jonathan Cape. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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