It's been a difficult few months for climate scientists. There were the stolen e-mails of Climategate that purported to show an attempt to cover up data disputing global warming, the much ballyhooed summit in Copenhagen that ended in disappointment, and the revelation of several errors in the work of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By March, congressional Republicans were calling for a McCarthy-style investigation into global-warming scientists, and researchers were being inundated with hate mail. Note to science students in search of a major: entomology is looking nice these days.
So when word went out that Ian McEwan's new novel, Solar, would be about global warming, climate researchers might have hoped they'd found their champion. With his portrait of a relentlessly rational science writer in Enduring Love and his detailed descriptions of neurosurgery in Saturday, McEwan is the rare novelist who understands the scientific world and the mind-set of the scientist. If anyone could make a best seller out of the sticky stuff of climate science and a hero out of one of its practitioners, it would be McEwan.
As it turns out, they might want to wait for Al Gore's next book. McEwan has turned his sharp, satirical eye to climate change, and the result is anything but heroic. In making Solar a comedy albeit one as black as the dark side of the moon McEwan gives the lie to vain hopes that the planet will be saved by a sudden outbreak of environmental virtue. If we're going to avoid choking on what McEwan calls the "hot breath of civilization," we're going to have to harness human nature, in all its selfishness, mendacity and occasional genius.
In other words, we're going to need Michael Beard, a rotund, balding, 50-ish English physicist coasting on a Nobel Prize he won two decades ago. As Solar begins, Beard is in the waning days of his fifth marriage, hanging on as the chief of a government center on renewable energy, where climate change takes up less space in his mind than adultery. "Beard was not wholly skeptical about climate change," McEwan writes. "But he himself had other things to think about."
That doesn't change even when Beard is invited on a trip to the Norwegian Arctic with a boat full of self-important artists and scientists going north to see global warming in action. The journey is hilarious: Beard suffers frostbite in a rather uncomfortable place and is very nearly eaten by a polar bear. But even better is the way McEwan deftly contrasts the high ideals of the travelers who call for a new, greener way of life with their unacknowledged selfishness. The ship's boot room, where people load and unload their polar gear, and which steadily descends into chaos, becomes a symbol of humanity's problems with planetary management. "How were they to save the earth," Beard wonders, "when it was so much larger than the boot room?"
But Beard's dismissal of global warming changes when his unhappy home his current wife is cheating on him in response to his half-dozen extramarital affairs and his stalled work collide on the full-length polar-bear rug in his living room. (Updating Chekhov: If the author of a climate-change novel shows you a polar-bear rug in the first act, you can be sure it will bare its teeth in the next one.) Quite suddenly, Beard discovers what he believes is the solution to the problem of climate change: artificial photosynthesis, harnessing sunlight to split water and yield hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used to drive fuel cells and provide cheap, clean electricity. The earth will be saved, as will Beard's flagging career (and bank account). An unrepentant narcissist at heart, Beard has no trouble transitioning from disinterested physicist to clean-energy messiah, addressing conference halls full of skeptical businesspeople. "Now planetary stupidity was his business," McEwan writes a slogan I should really put on the back of my business cards.