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"Solar," Part 1
April 10, 2010 - 5:55pm

One of the best things that emerged from my sojourn in Dublin was snagging a copy of Ian McEwan’s extraordinary new novel Solar, a tale of sex, ambition, murder, and, of all things, physics and the environment. Michael Beard is short, fat, and clever, and his fifth marriage is ending as he confronts the dying embers of a brilliant career, only to be saved by a series of fortuitous events that lead him to become a hero to the environmental movement.

The novel is, as is everything by McEwan, beautifully written, but what’s interesting here is how Beard’s view of climate change evolves. Initially he accepts, as I do, that the planet is getting warmer, but he’s far less sure that we are heading for a cataclysm: “[Beard] was unimpressed by some of the wild commentary that suggested the world was in ‘peril,’ that humankind was drifting towards calamity, when coastal cities would disappear under the waves, crops fail, and hundreds of millions of refugees surge from cone county to another.”

To be sure, he acknowledges that something must be done about climate change, but he’s equally surely correct in finding, “an old testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils, and deluge-of-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination… to believe that one was always living at the end of days.”

And this, as I read McEwan, and as I read Nietzsche (or Thomas Kuhn, or John Gray), is precisely the problem. We tried to find a foundation in philosophy, then religion, now it is scientists to whom we must genuflect. But scientists are just as arrogant and self-important as philosophers and the religious! Worse, they seek to use religious imagery to bolster their case, even as they claim the sole mantle of rationality.

As the novel progresses, Beard becomes more certain that action must be taken, but primarily because he sees it as a way for him to become relevant again. McEwan is thus very clear-eyed about climate change and he doesn’t want the reader to lose sight of the fact that scientists as they make their discoveries are also making their careers.


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