Book Review: “Solar” by Ian McEwan

Link to Amazon Kindle edition.

I found this in this Amazon list of global warming fiction, which in turn I found at this post in the Facebook Climate Change Fiction group.

This is another excellent global warming novel. As well it should be. The author has his own Wikipedia page and has been featured on a list of the greatest 50 British writers since the war by The Times. So he was well established as a successful writer when he published “Solar” in 2010. The book has its own Wikipedia page as well.

In preparing this novel, he had the chance to speak to climate scientists John Schellnhuber and Stefan Rahmstorf. It shows in how the characters talk about global warming. While much of this book is satire, the parts about the scientific basic of global warming are well informed and close to reality. Rahmstorf says in his review that he would be tempted to steal a speech in the book almost verbatim. Plagiarism is a compliment, even when not actually done.

My favorite line from this novel:

“Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!”

That one line sums up an important conflict for everyone interested in mitigating the disaster of global warming. The main character (a Nobel Prize winner professor called Michael Beard) is discussing his desert solar energy project with his business partner, Toby. Toby says he needs global warming for their business plan to succeed. In his words:

“If the place isn’t hotting up, we’re fucked.”

But Beard has great news:

“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change”

And Beard delivers more of these excellent news, all major catastrophes, in the following sentences.

Obviously, there is a problem with calling “a third of a million people a year dying” “good news”.

The only good thing about early damages from the global warming disaster is that they help to bring the message out, as a warning of the much greater misery ahead.

But it sure makes global warming activists look bad that, by the logic of things, they look like they are rejoicing in Hurricane Sandy or some similar extreme weather event.

Beard has some problems in his personal life. Women. Overeating. Failure in simple things. Quite a lot of the space in the novel discusses them.

Obviously, the failure to keep a healthy diet is one good metaphor when talking about global warming. We need to emit less carbon, and Michael Beard needs to reduce his overeating.

But in that novel he is unable to do so. While he understands the need for starting a diet, as well as the need to do something about the cancer growing on his hand, he is unable on an emotional level to actually follow through.

One of the stories in this book is summarized with the words “unwitting thief”. Beard sits in a railroad compartment. He wants to eat some snack from a bag he just bought at the station and is annoyed at the guy on the other side reaching into the bag and helping himself to some of the contents.

Only after he has got off, he finds his bag of snacks still in his coat pocket, and finds out that he has been the one stealing.

An absent-minded professor like Beard is an excellent choice for a character in this tale. He uses it in one of his speeches, but fails to come up with a convincing way to turn this into a global warming metaphor.

My idea for this: The bag with the snack is not Beard’s, and all the fossil fuel is not ours. We are stealing it from later generations, if we just eat along without ever putting any stored energy back into the reserves.

Anyway, I liked this a lot.

Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003, lenzblog.com).

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