I thought Ian McEwan's 'Solar' (2010) would be a serious book about a serious subject: global warming. Then I started reading it. It was really funny at first. Michael Beard is an ageing, fat, bald Nobel Laureate-winning physicist whose main preoccupation is the affair his fifth wife, Patrice, is having with their builder, Rodney Tarpin, a man who owns a 'mock-Tudor house, renovated and tudorised by his own hand, with a boat trailer under a Victorian-style lamp post on a concreted front driveway'. Beard is comic - he overeats and obsesses about his appearance. His 'manhood' is nearly fatally compromised in a hilarious description of what happens when a man attempts to answer the call of nature in sub zero Arctic temperatures.
The book settles into satirical mode as Beard witnesses the accidental death of a young climate change scientist (also having an affair with his wife) and is able to frame the builder, Tarpin, for his death, thus dispatching one of his wife's lovers temporarily to jail and then passing off the dead man's original climate research as his own work throughout the rest of the book (there's a great gag in that the young man dies after slipping on the polar bear skin rug on the Beards' highly polished floor, hitting his head on a glass table as he falls. The polar bear has the last laugh.)
What stands out is not the idealism often associated with climate change protesters, or the virtue some think is needed to combat it, but the entirely pragmatic approach taken by science, to try and find alternative, world-saving energy sources. Beard is a pragmatist but also a man of unchecked appetites - for food, drink, academic recognition, and to an extent - sex. Clearly not a stupid man intellectually, he is continually compromised by his failing personal life, juggling different women from different relationships, and even the expectations of a young daughter, at the end. He appears to escape all initial signs of a comeuppance but his continual overeating and ignoring of ominous health signs can mean only one thing and when the end comes, it comes suddenly and grotesquely.
Religious readers of McEwan will recognise a characteristically bleak vision of humanity - realistic but without hope. If Beard's doomed, plagiaristic attempt at creating clean fuel is a model for the 'solutions' science has in store for us, the book casts a long and hopeless shadow.
But it also begs the question: is climate change a moral issue or a scientific one? In a long speech to a collection of academics Beard says of the human collective failure to address climate change: 'This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilisation, it's a weak force (...) For humanity, en masse, greed trumps virtue.'
How true; unless of course, we are looking at a Wilberforce or a Mother Theresa (who would, no doubt, claim to be ordinary human beings). But this speech, coming from one whose own greed is, literally, the death of him, does not really inspire. Beard is the original 'fool' of the Old Testament - one who says in his heart 'there is no God' - bankrupt spiritually and morally - 'his god is his belly', as St Paul would say.
Yet he knows we have mucked about with the planet. We all know. We lack the will to do anything about it, despite knowing what we could do about it. The bottom line is that efforts in the right direction (less consumption, more equitable living) affect our personal standard of living. Is climate change a moral issue or a purely scientific one? McEwan's protagonist would say it was purely scientific, and its solution will be scientific. Charities such as Christian Aid would say moral on both counts.
Is religion/virtue always idealistic, science always pragmatic? Can they do without each other? Will one need the other if we are ever going to sort it all out for future (not to mention, present) generations? In casting Beard as a central failure of a figure, McEwan has given, not a comic, after all, but tragi-comic novel about humanity's greed, small mindedness and incompetence. And it's not a pretty picture.