Solar, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 285 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-0739377789
There are many issues that the turbulent passage of global warming through public discourse has revealed. From the deadlock at Copenhagen in December to the growing confidence of climate change scepticism, it has become clear that we suffer from an incapacity to rationally discuss and address long-term and system-wide problems. It might indeed not be an exaggeration to say that we have seen evidence of the failure of politics and political discourse.
This can register in different ways. In Ian McEwan’s new novel, Solar, the Nobel-winning physicist Michael Beard passes through the institutions of climate science and enterprise, and is drawn into the conflicts and failings that beset them. The story is one of character, and it is it is only through this arrogant and juvenile man that we can look for causes behind the crises.
Beard’s path is inflected by the crippling barriers imposed by personal hubris and self-aggrandisement. Occasionally caught up in the cycles of public debate, his situation reveals the vicious ignorance of the media and the inadequacies of public discourse. In his recurring efforts at restraint, control and purpose and their failure in the face of unrestrainable entropy and the overriding immediacy of desire, Beard seems ‑ perhaps too simply ‑ a synonym of ecological crisis and the failure to address it.
We do not take this failure for granted. The Copenhagen Summit was infused with the tail-end of the popular optimism that saw Barack Obama elected to the White House: even his election tagline was cannibalised in the awful and retrospectively tragic pun, Hopenhagen. And even though the summit and the presidency have frustrated it, the mass mobilisation of hope indicates the persistence of belief that the problems of the world are not beyond our control, that participation in the political process can lead to meaningful change.
Solar is a novel in three parts, three stages in the life of Beard, who first enters as a man of little purpose or direction. His Nobel Prize has moved him from intense and productive study to a steady succession of titular and administrative positions with little connection to research and no outlet for his energies but sexual and culinary indulgence. Although head of the National Centre for Renewable Energy, he has little interest in the issue he is paid to address, or indeed in any of his career. His fifth and final marriage is slowly falling apart as his wife, having learnt of his numerous infidelities, responds in kind, prodding her husband into morose obsession.
While much of the first part of the novel is given over to Beard’s post-romantic wallowing, he eventually finds direction after a government-funded environmentalist junket to the Arctic, when a tragic accident conveniently both shears his entanglements with his current life and sets him up for a new one. The death of Tom Aldous lands Beard with the young physicist’s breakthrough research into artificial photosynthesis for solar power, research that he wastes no time in claiming as his own. Armed only with lucrative patents, he ventures forth into new terrain, to save the world and make a killing.
When we next see him, Beard is travelling, as indeed he is throughout much of the remainder of the novel. A meditation inspired by the view from an airplane window questions the capacity of humanity to exercise restraint, or even control, over growth. Seen from this perspective, the city, and civilisation itself, seem opaque, implacable, and ferociously dynamic, an immense multitude of desires, an inchoate surging of creation and expansion that will inevitably overwhelm the earth beneath it.
These days, whenever he came in over a big city he felt the same unease and fascination. The giant concrete wounds dressed with steel, these catheters of ceaseless traffic filing to and from the horizon ‑ the remains of the natural world could only shrink before them. The pressure of numbers, the abundance of inventions, the blind forces of desires and needs looked unstoppable and were generating a heat, a modern kind of heat that had become, by clever shifts, his subject, his profession. The hot breath of civilisation. He felt it, everyone was feeling it, on the neck, in the face … One day this brash and ancient kingdom might yield to the force of multiple cravings, to the dreamy temptations of a giant metropolis, a Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Los Angeles combined, to effloresce from London to the Medway to Southampton to Oxford, back to London, a modern form of quadrilateral, burying all previous hedges and trees. Who knew, perhaps it would be a triumph of racial harmony and brilliant buildings, a world city, the most admired world city in the world.
But Beard, regardless of his elevated perspective, is no different from what stretches out below. It is hard not to see in him a personification of the discordant, chaotic passage of the world in general. The rotund physicist likens his internal life to a process of political debate, with all the accompanying fractiousness and acrimony: “At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.” Any crucial issue is the subject of clamorous debate. Options are weighed and outcomes considered. But even when his raucous internal polyphony is momentarily unified, its capacity for policy-making is inevitably scuttled by the immediacy of desire.
He was thirty-five pounds overweight. About his future lightness he had made many general resolutions and virtuous promises, often after dinner, with a glass in his hand, and all parliamentary heads nodding in assent. What defeated him was always the present, the moment of vivid confrontation with the affirming tidbit, the extra course, the meal he did not really need, when the short-term faction carried the day.
The summit at Copenhagen revealed something similar. For all the high ideals espoused, the process of debate was as unproductive as it was undemocratic. The leaked “Danish Agreement”, it is now agreed, scuppered any chance of consensus, but the text itself shows what kind of deal the developed economies wanted; a retraction of the Kyoto Protocol, sidelining of the UN and overall direction on climate policy to be set from the World Bank. The countries that would not toe the line were bullied, ignored or bypassed. The people who walked the city and demanded something better were beaten from the streets, locked in cages and blinded with pepper spray.
The first section of the novel closes after Beard travels to the Arctic on a junket for scientists and artists to view the consequences of global warming at first hand. Here, in what is partially a rendition of McEwan’s experiences on a similar trip, the problematic relationship between intentions and actions emerges again. In fiction and reality the high-minded ideals that dominate the dining table disappear as they venture beyond. In the dressing room, the guests’ mad scramble for outdoor clothing amounts to collective sabotage as coats, boots and gloves are stolen with chaotic abandon. As McEwan mused on the experience that provided the material for this episode: “ … for all the fine words and good intentions, maybe there was a comic inadequacy in human nature in dealing with this problem”. This reflection is not far from recent comments by environmental scientist James Lovelock, that perhaps humans are too stupid to solve the problems of climate change.
The novel’s crucial turning point comes when Beard frames his wife’s lover for the death of Tom Aldous. Even in this moment of life-changing cruelty, Beard shows no concern for, or even awareness of, those he will harm. Whether to avenge his cuckolding at the hands of the macho builder or simply to avoid the fuss and trauma of a possible trial, he does not think beyond the boundaries of his person. His actions begin as simply an idea, a possibility to be toyed with. “He did not have a plan, he simply enacted one. His body had a plan. And he walked it through, as though experimentally, believing at every stage he could undo it, go back to the beginning, with nothing lost or compromised.” There is no moment of decision, just one of belated realisation that this is the course his actions have taken for him. When events threaten to disrupt his life, Beard is capable of decisive action, yet he does it without the discomfort of decision.
We see this same subliminal process at work later, more trivially, where, leaving an airport, he is pulled, as if magnetically, to the newsagents to satisfy a longing for salt and vinegar crisps.
Now he was at the counter, sorting the pound coins from euros in his hand, with four newspapers under his arm, not one, as if excess in one endeavour might immunise him in another, and as he handed them across for their bar codes to be scanned, he saw at the edge of vision, in the array beneath the till, the gleam of the thing he wanted, the thing he did not want to want, a dozen of them in a line, and without deciding to he was taking one ‑ so light! ‑ and adding it to his pile, partly obliterating a picture of the prime minister waving from the doorway of a church.
For all the speakers in his internal parliament, Beard cannot make decisions consciously. McEwan, like Lovelock, seems to implicitly attribute the failure of political process to that of democracy. Lovelock has argued that climate change is a threat, like war, where political process must adapt to the moment, that, in his words, “[i]t may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while”. Though it would be hard to endorse Lovelock’s contention that the problems at Copenhagen were due to a surfeit of democracy, Michael Beard offers only affirmation of the pessimistic reflection that “[t]he inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful”.
Beard, like Brecht’s Galileo, is a sensual man, but his sensual nature is not productive in the same way, a facet of joy in discovery of the world. It is, instead, a steady dissipation, a self-erosion, accompanied by an almost obscene indifference to the needs of others. We do not see him involved in any scientific work at any point in the novel. The Nobel Prize and the work that won it gesture to us as if from another world, while the modification of Tom Aldous’s work that sets up the second and third sections of the book is hidden in the intervals. In this novel about a scientist, the science occurs, like Shakespeare’s plot-defining battles, off-stage. Whether this is due to lack of technical capacity or is executed for reasons of maintaining narrative interest, the effect is to make the novel purely a chronicle of dissipation, where action, purpose and direction fall necessarily in defeat.
In the face of the inevitability of failure, Beard masters the art of deferral. It is only pleasures that instigate immediate action, while the crises of relationships, health and business are suppressed, ignored. “The past had shown him many times that the future would be its own solution.” Gluttony or adultery, his life is an expanding mess of unwelcome repercussions of immediate pleasures. Five failed marriages and a succession of new careers testify to his adeptness at extricating himself from responsibility, but, like the green world that skirts the city, Beard too must yield to the weight of his actions, the postponed “force of multiple cravings”. While these repercussions are slow in coming, come they do, and, at the novels end, all converge with implausible propinquity.
A diversion from the plot, via a stint on a government quango on gender participation in the sciences, brings us to yet another unfortunate incident in the life of Michael Beard. When casual comments on biological gender differentiation in cognitive capacities attract the attention of the media, he is caught up in the merciless spin of the news cycle. This is his second time in the media spotlight, but he finds the story, and his role within it, has shifted dramatically. His “earlier incarnation as the harmless, dreamy cuckold, the innocent fool, the dupe of a flighty wife was conveniently forgotten. Now he was a loathed figure, seducing women even as he drove them out of science.”
Thus cast in a tabloid trope, Beard is put to the question at an event at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London where the audience is packed with postmodernists who harry him with righteous denunciations of his “hegemonic arrogance”. Though the opposing speaker, a cognitive psychologist, refutes Beard’s arguments, the audience is unimpressed, for she too shares similar rationalist affiliations. “By the time Applebaum started in on her conclusion, Beard thought he was the only one listening. Statistics were clearly not a postmodern concern.” His philandering exposed and his reputation seemingly devastated, Beard sees the end of his career looming. But the attentions of the tabloids pass as quickly as they had come as fresh scandal draws the storm elsewhere.
This series of incidents is, as other reviewers have noted, a somewhat inexplicable segue away from the main narrative sequence, yet by following Beard through both news cycle and debate, we see the failure of either to provide space for education and rational discussion. The press, pursuing scandal and sales with pre-cooked morality tales, has no interest in ideas, nuance or evidence. The audience at the debate, in its self-righteous attacks on scientific method, its belief “that science was just one more belief system, no more truthful than religion or astrology”, are the book’s closest counterparts to fundamentalist Christians or conspiracy theorists, those who posit creationism as a theory that may be as valid as evolution, or those who portray concern over climate change as (another) plot to install global governance.
The conjunction of these two elements then, the factually agnostic and the aggressively ignorant, is apt when we consider the controversy which continues to attach itself to the science and policy of global warming. Both media and conspiracy theorists had a field day over the “Climategate” scandal, when stolen emails from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit were presented as proof that climate change was indeed, in the words of US senator Jim Inhofe, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”. Beard’s painful ordeal by media and public forum resonates with our contemporary questions: are there institutions in our society capable of holding a serious debate, of educating, of rationally discussing crucial issues? If the answer is no then McEwan’s novel offers tacit support to Lovelock’s suggestion that the suspension of democracy may be the only response to impending disaster.
But we can take it another way as well. Beard’s reflections on his now past public infamy are followed by a speaking appointment in London at which he addresses an audience of investors, whom he endeavours to convince of the money to be made by investing in green technology, preferably his green technology. This is, of course, technology built on the unashamed theft of a younger colleague’s work. It is clear throughout that Beard does not wear the green mantle for laudable motives.
It is not until the third and final section of the novel, when he is on the cusp of fame and fortune, that Beard is confronted for his appropriation of Aldous’s research. By now he has an array of solar panels in the deserts of New Mexico; the theoretical breakthroughs of his young, deceased researcher have led him to the holy grail of solar energy, one hundred per cent efficiency, artificial photosynthesis that can convert all incident light into electrical energy. The crowning triumph, of course, never comes. His theft discovered and litigation ensuing, Beard is given the chance to admit his crime and seek reconciliation. Instead he turns to declamation, delivering the book’s final masterclass in hubris, pouring scorn on the idea that a lowly post-doc could do such work and unashamedly asserting that “In our democratic times … science remains a hierarchical affair, unamenable to levelling.” Our scientist hero is unheroic. Self-advancement and the pursuit of personal pleasure inflect his work, while his life, like that of his society, is determined not by any great plan or ambition, but by the chaotic and contradictory drives of self-interest. The disdain he espouses for egalitarian notions derives, at least partially, from his own pursuit of status and success.
In Solar we see ideals, purpose and ambition fall inexorably into dissolution. Beard, much like the world around him, is neither capable of identifying or addressing the problems that beset him, nor of relating to other people. Both problems stem from his solipsistic pursuit of immediate pleasure, a drive that damages those around him and ultimately himself. In this way, Beard’s insulated personal world and his repeated surrender to short-term desires are apt reminders of the irrational economic system that causes environmental destruction, while the communications failures that afflict the novel’s interpersonal relationships pithily express the incapacity of the political process to bring it under control.
Fittingly, the novel rarely assumes any telling narrative voice, nor does it seek to explore the thoughts and motivations of anyone but Beard. But this is more claustrophobic than it is effective, and the novel, for all the resemblances to the everyday, retains an element of unreality. As long as we are closeted within the life and mind of a single man, we cannot know the world in which he moves. There are efforts to make him real, as McEwan attempts to situate his hero within a wider social sphere through references to absent friends or stilted comic incidents. But neither Beard’s extra-narrative life nor the unsuccessful efforts at humour succeed in deepening the characterisation. Beard, without connections to the world around him, cannot fully chart its crisis.
Dara McHugh is a Dublin-based writer and freelance journalist.