In reflecting on the experience of reading Ian McEwan’s 2010 novel Solar, the present author must express disappointment as central. Such disappointment follows from the high hopes gleaned from the few information-sources on the work the present author had read before reading Solar itself. The Guardian‘s David Adam explains that Solar is “about a scientist working on a technology to address global warming,”1 while Stefan Rahmstorf of RealClimate compares the existential concerns of the work with those advanced in Death in Venice.2 McEwan is even said to have gone back to rewrite part of the conclusion to Solar following the failure of climate negotiations in Copenhagen last December, an event McEwan reportedly watched “very closely and with some despair.”3 The truth of Solar, sadly, is far less interesting or heroic than it conceivably could have been. McEwan’s work is very far from an examination of the life’s work of a committed, concerned climatologist like NASA’s James Hansen, let alone of the efforts of an actor analogous to Alfonso Cuarón’s Human Project to stave off catastrophe; it has little to do with Herbert Marcuse’s revolutionary “new science.”4 Rather, Solar concerns itself with slices of life from the existence of Michael Beard, a corpulent aging bourgeois physicist, from the years 2000 to 2009 CE.
McEwan’s anti-hero is at the opening of Solar relatively unconcerned with the undeniable threats posed by dangerous anthropogenic intereference with the Earth’s climate system. In the novel’s first section, set in 2000, Beard takes the social-democratic position that climate change represents something of a problem, but that it would likely be resolved through negotiations among the world’s states. Following this initial treatment, climate change then disappears as a focus of the text, to be eclipsed by rather unstimulating explorations of Beard’s private, provincial worries related to sex and family-relations. To find such a denouement negating rather than affirming should not, of course, be taken to mean that sexual and affective relations are unimportant—for the opposite rather seems to be the case—but rather to emphasize that a text entitled Solar which at points concerns itself with the presently unfolding climate catastrophe could likely have provided perspectives more provocative and important than mere mundane examinations of Beard’s rather boring, bourgeois life-style.
Indeed, it must be said that McEwan’s treatment of climate change in Solar, considered as a whole, could indeed be cause for concern. It is true that Beard at one point cites the findings of the entirely horrifying report published by the Global Humanitarian Forum in May 2009 which estimate some 300,000 people to lose their lives annually due to the climate change that has occurred to date,5 in addition to his mentioning that “Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming,” that the summer of 2007 saw the Arctic losing “forty percent” of its ice, that there exists a “meltdown under the Greenland ice sheet that no one really wants to talk about,” that “[t]here’s drought in the Amazon rain forest,” and that “the eastern Antarctic is going.” Such brutal truth-telling is decidedly the exception in Solar. Indeed, even given the older, more conscious Beard of 2005 and 2009, we still see him unjustifiably consuming steak, smoked salmon, and even “quails’ legs wrapped in bacon on a bed of creamed garlic,” in addition to employing air-travel liberally. What is more, the perspectives on responding to climate change advanced in the text are entirely commensurate with reformism—that is to say, illegitimate. In the second section of the text, set in 2005, Beard is shown as trying to convince wealthy capitalists to invest some of the $400 billion available in their portfolios into renewable-energy schemes; assuring them that the “sector” is teeming with “vitality,” “invention,” and “growth,” he promises them that “[c]olossal fortunes will be made” in the transition to a post-carbon global society. Significantly, though, that the investors are depicted as uninterested in considering financing that which one of them refers to as “unproven, noncontinuous forms of energy supply” may reflect misgivings on McEwan’s part regarding the rationality of leaving responsibility for the promotion of what Max Ajl terms an “Apollo project for green energy”6 to the capitalist market. Indeed, the response given to Beard by these potential investors should serve as a reminder of the obvious: that directing one’s concerns regarding looming climate catastrophe to the bourgeoisie and their defenders simply will not work. What may though work in its stead, as McEwan acknowledges in passing near the start of his novel, is the employment of reason.
That McEwan fails rather significantly in Solar to present the looming climate catastrophe as such does not mean that his work is bereft of all value, surely. Like many other commentators on the present predicament too tied to hegemonic power structures to call things by their name—James Hansen,7 for example, or Mark Lynas8—he certainly acknowledges the status quo to be problematic: through a research-assistant of Beard’s he presents the compelling metaphor of a man dying of thirst in a rainforest who ravages the forest’s trees for their sap, rendering the area into a wasteland when he could very readily, and far less destructively, simply collected rain-water for consumption. Early on in the text, McEwan recognizes that “[e]veryone, all of us” faces “oblivion” at the hands of climate change, and that “the general condition” is that humanity is “running out of time”; he has Beard reflect at one point on the injustice and irrationality of the market system in observing that “There was no premium for being virtuous, for not screwing up the climate system.” McEwan even inserts into Solar some rather legitimate observations on the 2000 U.S. presidential elections—observations that have of course lost none of their relevance, whether with regard to the U.S. or more generally—claiming it to constitute “a struggle within an elite” whose outcome, whether it be favorable to Al Gore or George W. Bush, would have office-holders “schooled in like-minded orthodoxies” and “bound by the same constraints.” McEwan complements such passing comments with more regular criticisms of Tony Blair’s New Labour regime in the U.K.
Moreover, McEwan centrally affirms the scientific basis for anthropogenic climate change, depicting Beard as finding it to be “as incontestable as the basics of natural selection.” He has Beard and his research-assistant engage in thought-experiments involving aliens who, landing on planet Earth and noting it to be “bathed in radiant energy,” would be shocked to learn that humans “ever should have thought of poisoning lives by burning fossil fuels or creating plutonium.” In a move that may constitute what Theodor W. Adorno terms “a progress which leads out and away,”9 at least in embryonic terms, McEwan depicts Beard as claiming that “no one can own sunlight.” At the close of Solar, indeed, the actual possibility of an escape from catastrophe is proferred but then crushed: on the eve of a demonstration of the artificial-photosynthesis solar technology Beard has developed—an innovation that will finally allow for “endlessly self-renewing” clean energy that in turn will permit humanity to “draw back from the brink of disastrous self-destructive global warming”—his former employer files a lawsuit against him regarding a purported breach of intellectual-property rights, and a former lover of one of his ex-wives takes a jackhammer to the installation itself. This negation, then—one that quite literally smashes a potentially reasonable means by which to avert climate catastrophe—is surely one critical of constituted power, and in many ways it parallels the close to Checkpoint,10 when Jay is prevented by means of coercion from engaging in a plot to assassinate war criminal George W. Bush. Because the technological breakthrough made by Beard could theoretically be taken up by others, the defeat at Solar’s end hardly represents a total one, or one worthy of Schopenhauer’s lamentations.
Beyond such considerations, Solar features a good deal of amusing comic situations. For one, McEwan pokes fun at postmodern and constructivist social theories when he relates a scandal that erupts following Beard’s non-postmodern comments in response to a question posed to him regarding the under-representation of women in the field of physics; Beard soon finds himself accosted by crowds comprised of those partial to social constructivism that accuse him of advancing a “crude objectivism” with which he seeks to “maintain and advance the social dominance of the white male”—against all evidence—while others attach the epithets “genetic determinist,” “eugenicist,” and even “neo-Nazi” to the embattled Beard. Beard’s comical difficulties in this sense are in a way reminiscent of those which haunted Theodor W. Adorno near the end of his life (1969), at a time when German activist students denounced the leftist giant as a defender of the establishment in light of his desperate conclusions regarding the possibility of progress beyond prevailing conditions and his concomitant refusal to endorse the student movement. The historical example McEwan most likely had in mind for Beard, though, is Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University, who became embroiled in controversy following comments he made in 2005 on questions rather similar to those for which Beard comes under fire. It should of course be recognized that Adorno shares very little else with Summers, present economic adviser to the U.S. president and author of the infamous 1991 “toxic memo” written for internal use at the World Bank which makes capitalist arguments in favor of relocating highly-polluting industries to impoverished African societies; that Adorno shares even less with Beard need go unmentioned.
To close, then, it seems clear that McEwan considers climate change to be rather serious, as he should; we can see in the explicit reference to situationism he makes at one point in the novel an awareness on his part of radical socio-political alternatives to that which presently prevails. There remains considerable room for doubt, though, that a synthesis of these two considerations—looming climate catastrophe on the one hand, thoroughgoing reconstructive political projects on the other—finds coherent expression in Solar. Indeed, in light of the gravity of the present predicament, it rather seems to be the case that McEwan’s work has far less in common with modern radical politics than its unwanted offspring, postmodernism—the cultural logic of late capitalism, as Fredric Jameson has put it,11 or simple reformism, in Takis Fotopoulos’ estimation.12
1“Ian McEwan: Failure at Copenhagen climate talks prompted novel rewrite,” The Guardian, 5 March 2010
2“What climate scientists think of Ian McEwan’s Solar book,” The Guardian, 5 May 2010
4One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 150-67; Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), p. 67
5John Vidal, “Global warming causes 300,000 deaths a year, says Kofi Annan thinktank,” The Guardian, 29 May 2009
9Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” In Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith, trans. Eric Krakauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 96
10By Nicholson Baker (New York: Vintage, 2004)
11Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991)