A Missed Opportunity
In Ian McEwan’s much-heralded novel on climate change, Miguel Mendonça meets a protagonist who provides the perfect metaphor for the mess we’re in. Solar by Ian McEwan. Jonathan Cape, 2010. ISBN: 9780224090490
The imagery that accompanied my reading of Ian McEwan’s much-debated new novel, Solar, was of diving in coral seas: one minute passing through a colourful, entrancing wonderland, and the next hitting a sandbar. McEwan is revered for his understanding and evocation of the ways of the human heart, but from the perspective of one close to the book’s subject matter of renewable energy, it hits too many bumps in this area to make for a comfortable, flowing journey.
One minute we are dealing with the compelling intricacies of a man’s bumbling progress through decades of romantic entanglements; the next we are confronted with two-dimensional supporting cast members and frog-marched through somewhat flat, wooden depictions of the field of energy research.
Which may not, of course, matter to many readers. They may even delight in an entire book anchored around a boringly selfish, shallow and irksome protagonist who seems immune to personal growth of any kind. If I have missed the wit or clever irony of this, or the central point of the novel, I will not be the first to have done so. However, it seems to me that if art is to somehow put itself into the service of the greater good, it might do so more effectively if some level of audience support could be given to a character depicted as trying to do the world that same favour.
It’s not as if ‘greens’ do not already labour under a great many wider misapprehensions over who we are or why we do what we do. We are often seen as just another interest group, rather than caring, intelligent people who have recognised the implications of these complex, interwoven problems. The book’s narrative features an unhelpful ellipsis of the development of Michael Beard’s interest in ‘saving the planet’. It is assumed, not described. It would have been interesting and not least because he starts out as something of a sceptic.
Two especially entertaining sections stayed with me. One features the ridiculous press reaction over comments taken badly at a press conference, and the other a confrontation with potential fatherhood. There are some truths here, but the depth and vividness of the evocation serve to highlight the artificial, instrumental nature of the material on energy. They are qualitatively very different, despite McEwan’s clear immersion in the latter. For example, the speech Beard gives around page 150 is an excellent synthesis of current thinking on problems and energy-generation solutions. However, this in turn underlines a central criticism of the book: that McEwan/Beard never ventures from generation, ‘supply-side’ considerations.
Energy efficiency is desperately in need of investment, of sexing up. It is cheaper, faster, and fundamental to the establishment of a decentralised energy system based on renewable energy, yet here it gets no mention. Global warming is solved in the mind of the audience by simply switching energy sources.
Where the book scores low again is on its thin exploration of nuclear power as a solution. A number of green thinkers and ‘doers’ are listed as if to make watertight the appeal to some industry-standard ‘facts’. After all the joys of Beard’s artificial photosynthesis system have been expounded, nukes then ride into the picture at the end to undermine the very thrust of the book itself. Unless, as I mentioned, I missed the point.
Much of the book actually deals with the ageing, fattening, lusting, non-developing Beard. His growing list of health complaints, which he does little or nothing to address throughout the book, could be seen as a metaphor for the wealthy chunk of global society that is refusing to engage effectively – at this point knowingly dancing towards the edge of the cliff, earbuds rammed firmly in and trying to drown out all talk of approaching danger by turning up the iPod.
Or maybe it is my professional distortion. Being around so many other active people gives one the sense of forward motion, despite the national and international news giving very little hint that we are going to change direction before hitting the cliff edge. A recent article told of the slim prospect of getting a global climate deal. As if there is a choice!
Techno-fixes won’t be enough, whether from solar or nuclear fuels. We need teamwork, participation and efficiency and, just as importantly, stories that get closer to the complexity of the subject than Solar manages to.