Friday, April 9, 2010

IAN MCEWAN: SOLAR

This book has two features which differentiate it from the other books reviewed here: it is a novel and relatively unbiased on the topic of climate change.

Ian McEwan is one of Britain’s leading novelists. In interviews he says that he accepts the scientific view that climate change is taking place as a result of human activity. Some newspapers also reported that he had delayed publication of ‘Solar’ until after the Framework Convention on Climate Change Meeting in Copenhagen. From what I had read of his earlier novels I was expecting this novel to contain much wailing and gnashing of teeth but I was wrong. On the author’s web site the novel is described as “an engrossing and satirical novel which focuses on climate change”. I agree with that.

The main character, Michael Beard, won a Nobel Prize in Physics as a young man but he is now in his 50s treading water intellectually and trading on his reputation. He gives lectures and decorates various committees. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, baldness and excessive girth he is a serial husband and philanderer.

One of his appointments is as the one-day-week, figure-head, chief of a government initiative to tackle global warming. Initially showing only lukewarm interest in his sinecure, a combination of circumstances leads him to an awareness that photo-electrical interactions, his own area of expertise, could provide the ideal solution to clean, cheap, carbon-free energy. The book has a few factoids, which I have not checked, which underline his idea. A kilogram of gasoline contains 13,000 watt hours of electricity but the best batteries only store 300 watts hours per kilo. In other words, alternative energy sources have to compete with gasoline’s weight/energy ratio and avoid electrical storage. The third factoid is that the hydrogen in one litre of water has three times the energy of a litre of gasoline. Since hydrogen can be stored, unlocking it from water could provide the ideal clean source.

His route to this realisation is not straightforward. He is invited to join a group of artists concerned with climate change in a ship north (but only just) of the Arctic Circle which he is assured will be “toastily-heated”. One of the book’s great comic moments is when outside of the ship he stops to satisfy the needs of nature and discovers that at very low temperatures flesh sticks to metal zips. The irony of living in comfort, building ice-sculptures and riding snowmobiles to see vanishing glaciers as a protest against climate change is not lost on him.

While head of the government alternative energy centre, Beard decides to back a helical wind turbine for use on the roofs of private homes. The initial enthusiasm is soon worn down by health-and-safety concerns, current conversion and other problems which take teams of well-meaning but unproductive experts to examine in long and expensive detail.

As Beard's disorganised personal life impacts on his professional life, the invitations to lecture and to sit on boards become fewer and fewer. He starts to develop the idea of clean energy from water. To get development money he delivers a speech that Al Gore would be proud to a convention of investment bankers.

When the idea is getting closer to realisation, his business partner, whose seen a woman professor of atmospheric studies on television saying it is getting cooler, starts to wonder if people will still be willing to pay for alternative energy sources. Beard reassures his partner by saying :

'Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. There’s drought in the Amazonian rainforest. Methane is pouring out of the Siberian permafrost. There’s a meltdown under the Greenland ice sheet that no one really wants to talk about. Amateur yachtsmen have been sailing the North-West Passage. Two years ago we lost forty per cent of the Arctic summer ice. Now the eastern Antarctic is going… It’s a catastrophe. Relax!’


Remember, the author accepts that anthropogenic climate change is taking place yet here he is lampooning the tendency of ‘warmists’, to revel in bad news. The ‘deniers’ are no better; they are never happier than when airports are closed by snow storms and motorists are trapped by blizzards.

Despite the author’s beliefs he has the perspicacity to see participants from both sides, warts and all, in a clear objective way; if only those who write technical books on climate change were as perceptive about the science.

Author: Ian McEwan

Publisher: Jonathon Cape, 2010
ISBN: 9780224090490