Taking ‘Cli-Fi’ Seriously: comparing Flight Behaviour and Solar
by Andrew Dobson
by Andrew Dobson
When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America, sales of dystopian fiction went through the roof (Alter 2017). The most popular was George Orwell’s 1984, closely followed by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World¸ and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. This spike in sales should perhaps come as no surprise because each of the novels speaks to a feature of the Trump phenomenon that readers were struggling to come to terms with: the idea of fake news (1984), a desperate future for women (The Handmaid’s Tale), the readiness of people to be seduced by unconvincing promises of wellbeing and contentment (Brave New World), and a disturbing portrayal of a fascist takeover in the USA (It Can’t Happen Here).
But what is striking is that the surge in sales relates to works of fiction. It is true that some non-fiction works also increased in popularity (Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is an example), but it seems that the overwhelming tendency, when it came to reading our way through Trump, was for novels to lead the charge. We could ask ourselves why this is the case (the answer is likely to revolve around some variation of the observation that we are a ‘storytelling animal’; Gottschall 2013), and we might wonder at the bemused reactions of professional social scientists around the world to the fact that it is the case, but the present chapter is less about these questions and more about this one: when observers look back in 50 years’ time to the catastrophic mess we have made of dealing with climate change, will they find anything on the non-fiction bookshelf from our period which does the work for climate change that Orwell did for totalitarianism?
The most sensible answer to this question is the one Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai apocryphally gave when asked, ‘What do you think the impact of the French Revolution has been?’ ‘It is still too early to tell’, he is supposed to have replied. But what we can confidently say is that there is plenty of already-existing climate change fiction to choose from. This will come as a surprise to those who once heard best-selling literary author Ian McEwan express bewilderment at the lack of attempts to tackle climate change in fictional form (Dobson, 2010), read novelist Amitav Ghosh claiming that ‘serious fiction’ just does not do climate change (Ghosh 2016, 11), or hear Robert Macfarlane asking, ‘[W]here are the novels, the plays, the poems, the songs, the libretti, of this massive contemporary anxiety?’ (Macfarlane 2005). Of course Macfarlane’s comment is now an old one, and in Ghosh’s case it turns out that the adjective ‘serious’ does plenty of work: his list of ‘literary novelists writing in English [about climate change]’ is very short (Ghosh 2016, 124-50). (As it happens, two of the eight mentioned have written the books which are the main focus of this chapter: Ian McEwan and Barbara Kingsolver). We also learn from him along the way that science fiction is not serious literature and this immediately discounts a huge swathe of possible candidates.
However that may be, Ghosh is also well aware of the phenomenon that has come to be known as ‘cli-fi’ (Ghosh 2016, 72; Tuhus-Dubrow 2013) which numbers hundreds – possibly thousands – of fictional explorations of climate change. I used to collect and comment on cli-fi/eco-apocalypse novels but was eventually overwhelmed by their sheer number and gave up (Dobson 2018). So, plenty of effort is going into writing novels about climate change, although Ghosh is right to say that the nature of the contemporary novel makes this an especially challenging thing to do well. Ghosh’s analysis of these difficulties will now be presented as a precursor to discussing two of the novels which are often referenced when the topic of climate change fiction is raised: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (Kingsolver 2012) and Ian McEwan’s Solar (McEwan 2010).
Writing Climate Change Fiction: Three Challenges
Ghosh points to three features of the contemporary novel which make it an imperfect instrument for exploring climate change. The first is that there is a tendency in the modern novel to eschew improbability and contrivance. He gives an example drawn from his own life, involving experiencing a tornado in New Delhi – an experience so unlikely that for a few days the press literally lacked a vocabulary to describe it (Ghosh 2016, 14). This event is plausible – it actually happened – but Ghosh says that to ‘introduce such happenings into a novel is … to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence’ (Ghosh 2016, 24). It is apparently not enough for the novelist to say that this is what s/he does (make things up) - the result has to be believable. And Ghosh is surely right to say that something that might be only slightly improbable in real life can seem extremely unlikely in a novel, which makes the task of making credible even the mildly unlikely very taxing.
The stakes here are especially high for novels dealing with climate change, a topic which is part-defined by scepticism. If the novelist is striving to get the reader to take the issue seriously, unbelievable events will only confirm the sceptical reader’s scepticism rather than challenge it. So if we stick with (Ghosh’s interpretation of) the standard characteristics of the contemporary novel, successful climate change fiction will be peopled with believable characters grappling with plausible events. Let us call this the plausibility challenge. The problem with climate change is that it seems to be defined by what even the mildly sceptic will regard as wildly improbable – huge sea level rises, catastrophic weather events, mass migrations. Given this, how is the climate change novelist to meet the plausibility challenge? Or should the challenge be averted simply by ignoring it, as in the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) when a new Ice Age is triggered in a matter of hours?
According to Ghosh the second problem is the one that The Day After Tomorrow circumvented in its own ingenious if implausible way, which is that climate change takes place over a long period of time, and changes that take place over centuries or even decades are hard to capture in the novel form. As he puts it, ‘the longue durée is not the territory of the novel’ (Ghosh 2016, 59). Of course the premise of Ghosh’s concern might be rejected on the grounds that while climate change might once have been a slow burner, as it were, the rate of change is now accelerating to the point where its effects – such as the moment at which the Arctic will be ice-free in summer – are continually being revised forward.
Connected, it is no longer necessary to set the action of climate change fiction in the future: it is more and more obvious that its effects are with us in the here and now. This observation could help to steer Ghosh away from his view that science fiction, with its genre-defining focus on the future, is the literary vehicle best-placed to deal with climate change. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for the view that even Marcel Proust (reputedly the author of the longest-ever novel with À la recherche du temps perdu) would have struggled to represent the length, depth and breadth of the ‘hyperobject’ that is climate change (Morton 2013). Jorge Luis Borges wrote of some cartographers who, determined to create the most accurate map ever, ended up with one so detailed that is was indistinguishable from the world itself (Borges 1954). The climate change novelist is confronted with Borges’ challenge of distilling the essence of climate change in fictional form while remaining ‘true’ to the totality of its origins and effects. As Ghosh says, climate change involves ‘forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space’ (Ghosh 2016, 63). How is the novelist both to represent these gaps – and bridge them?
Ghosh’s third problem can be simply stated, which is that climate change is a collective problem, while the modern novel is, in John Updike’s words, an ‘individual moral adventure’ (in Ghosh 2016, 127). Once again, the thought is that climate change has been produced through the actions of millions of people over a long time, and solutions to it (both mitigatory and adaptive) will be collective rather than individual – something that is hard to represent in a literature that has the trials and tribulations of the individual at its heart. Ghosh’s concern here is a specific instance of a general feature of climate change, which is the huge scale of its reach and disruptive consequences. Its subject-matter is as far from ‘the regularity of bourgeois life’ (Ghosh 2016, 25) as one can imagine, yet this regularity and its relatively petty disturbances are the lodestone of the contemporary literary novel, according to Ghosh. Bearing all this in mind we can now turn to Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and Ian McEwan’s Solar to see how successfully they deal with the challenges Ghosh lays down – and one or to others that will become apparent as the discussion unfolds.
Kingsolver, from the United States, and McEwan, from the UK, were both already established and highly-regarded authors when they came to write their ‘climate change novel’. Kingsolver had published some seven novels (the best-known probably being The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible) as well two books of essays, one of poetry and a number of non-fiction works. McEwan had 13 novels to his name, many of which will be familiar to a UK audience, including The Cement Garden, Atonement, and Saturday.
The principal character in Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is Dellarobia Turnbow, trapped in both a rural town in the Appalachian Mountains and a shotgun marriage with her husband, Cub. The novel opens with her climbing a hill on the way to begin an affair with a young telephone repairman. On the way up she sees a carpet of orange enveloping the trees and then flying across the sky. Her religious upbringing makes her think that this is a sign, warning her off her planned assignation, and she returns home to her husband Cub and children, Preston and Cordelia. The family farm is in debt, and Cub’s father, Bear, has signed a contract with a logging company to clear-cut the mountain, but on going to check the trees they see that the land is covered in monarch butterflies. In church and throughout the town the belief circulates that Dellarobia has had a ‘vision’ and her fame begins to grow. Dellarobia meets an immigrant Mexican family who confirm that the monarchs over-wintered in their town before it was destroyed by a flood and a mudslide. She is visited by reporters keen on her story, and then by a scientist, Ovid Byron, an expert on monarch butterflies who sees their appearance in the Appalachian mountains as a possible sign of climate change. Byron sets up a research lab with postgrad assistants, a small scientific community into which Dellarobia is drawn, and the scene is set for a playing out of the various interests present in this personally, professionally and politically delicate mise-en-scène.
This is a climate change novel that wears its climate change-ness lightly – there is no mention of it until page 202 (out of 597), and the first full discussion of it begins on page 315. But the first time the reader encounters it is on the book’s dust jacket, so one is aware of its enveloping presence from the outset. For me, this understatedness is part of the novel’s success as a climate change novel: its presence as an insidious force which exerts action-at-a-distance is so much more striking and true to life than a full frontal assault would have been (compare with J.G.Ballard’s opening lines of his 1962’s The Drowned World, ‘[S]oon it would be too hot’ [1999, 7] which are at once brilliant yet banal).
Beyond this, Kingsolver deals with a whole range of themes that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the career of climate change as a social and political issue. The role of science is crucial, and Ovid Byron plays a key part in the story as the ultimate arbiter of the true explanation of the appearance of the monarch butterflies in the mountains. They are not a portent from God as most people in Dellarobia’s town believe, but a sign of the unintended outcomes of human action. Whenever Dellarobia comes across a doubter she immediately refers them to Byron: ‘[Y]ou need to talk to him, he’ll be back in a few days. He knows everything there is to know about these butterflies’ (Kingsolver 2012, 284-5). Byron, in turn, believes in the crucial part science must play, though his rather naïve belief that all he has to do is put on a lab coat and everybody will acknowledge the truth of what he has to say is neatly captured: ‘I like to think academics are the referees. That we can talk to every side’ (Kingsolver 2012, 446). Dellarobia is frustrated at Byron’s apparent unwillingness to play a more active role in telling the world what he knows, particularly when it becomes clear that the media (represented by one Tina Ultner who has ‘a laugh as tidy as the rest of her’ [Kingsolver 2012, 277]) is far more interested in sensationalist reporting and ‘shoring up the prevailing view of their audience and sponsors’ (Kingsolver 2012, 317) than in challenging them with the truth.
Despite his evident commitment, Byron is occasionally doubtful about his capacity to communicate his truths via the mainstream media or face-to-face with the inhabitants of the town, and he is also wary about what any attempt to do so might have on his standing as a scientific researcher: ‘[H]aving a popular audience can get us pegged as second-rank scholars’ (Kingsolver 2012, 447). (This will sound familiar to academics around the world). All these doubts are swept away near the end of the novel when Byron is finally interviewed by Tina and loses his temper at her weary attempts to claim that scientists disagree about climate change. ‘What scientists disagree on now, Tina, is how to express our shock,’ says Byron, before launching into a metaphor that stops her in her tracks:'We are at the top of the Niagara Falls, Tina, in a canoe. There is an image for your viewers. We got here by drifting, but we cannot turn around for a lazy paddle back when you finally stop pissing around. We have arrived at the point of an audible roar. Does it strike you as a good time to debate the existence of the falls?' (Kingsolver 2012, 507)
Towards the end of the novel Byron’s wife Juliet makes an appearance and their evident contentment together puts paid to any thoughts Dellarobia might have had about forming a relationship with him (and she has had a few). More interestingly, Juliet turns out to be an artist and this prompts the question as to why Kingsolver took the crucial decision to place a scientist rather than an artist at the heart of her story about climate change. Any novel is an attempt to communicate, and Kingsolver evidently felt that she could better say what she wanted to say about climate change through the character of a scientist than an artist. This is perhaps a contentious point, because years and years of scientific assessments and pronouncements on climate change, with 97% of scientists sure that, ‘[C]limate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities’ (NASA 2018), have failed to tip public opinion in the direction of immediate and decisive action. This is why some have looked to alternative forms of climate change communication – such as the novel. But of course the key point is not that Byron’s wife Juliet is an artist, but that Kingsolver is. She is using her art to communicate, and the central role that Byron plays in her novel is testament to her conviction that conclusions drawn from science are vital to the climate change case. Kingsolver’s novel is a new, alternative and refreshing prism through which to reflect on an otherwise possibly tired and hackneyed point.
Another theme that Kingsolver luminously conveys is the disruption to nature brought about by climate change. Flight Behaviour is full of evocations of unnatural rearrangement. Well before climate change is even mentioned, Dellarobia’s surroundings are described as being out of kilter: ‘an orange butterfly on a rainy day. Its out-of-place brashness made her think of the wacked-out sequences in children’s books: Which of these does not belong?' (Kingsolver 2012, 15), and in a trope that could come straight out of Bill McKibben's End of Nature (2010), Dellarobia wonders whether, ‘[T]he world of seasons had come undone’ (Kingsolver 2012, 67), before asking, ‘will winter just end, then?’ (Kingsolver 2012, 385).
The novel form allows Kingsolver to undergird this sense of dislocation through the characters she develops, creating a granularity and lending a texture to the impression of disturbance which brings it to life, and which is most often absent in non-fiction approaches to climate change. Dellarobia’s personal life is in as much disarray as the natural world around her, trapped in her marriage, confined to the house by the children she must look after, always short of money, and increasingly aware of her frustrated potential for agency in a world which just seems to push her from one place to another like so much flotsam and jetsam. Kingsolver’s alchemic confection of disarray and disturbance, operating at all levels, is the fruit of her skill as a novelist, and it is hard to imagine the depth of discomfort it provokes being matched by any number of scientific tables, graphs or statistics.
As we saw, one of Amitav Ghosh’s challenges for the would-be climate change novelist was that of bridging the gap between the drama of the individual life and the enormous forces unleashed by climate change. Kingsolver achieves this by showing how Dellarobia’s small life begins to connect with the size and scale of the monarch butterfly phenomenon visited upon her town. For example, Dellarobia hosts a small dinner for scientist Byron just after he has first arrived on the scene. Dellarobia asks him why he is so keen on studying the monarch butterflies, and he replies that he is asking the ‘most interesting and alarming question anyone in the field has yet considered … why a major portion of the monarch population … [has aggregated] … in the southern Appalachians, for the first time in recorded history on the farm of the family Turnbow’ (Kingsolver 2012, 167). With this remark Byron reduces the gap between Dellarobia’s life and the world-historical phenomenon of climate change to zero, at a stroke. ‘They all stared, to hear their family name at the end of a sentence like that’ (Kingsolver 2012, 167), Kingsolver tells us.
Challengingly, Kingsolver leaves us in no doubt that the calamity of climate change is beneficial for Dellarobia’s development as a person: ‘I was so focused on my own little life. Just one person. And here was something so much bigger. I had to come back and live a different life’ (Kingsolver 2012, 288), she tells journalist Tina Ultner. And as she reflects on her stultifying life with husband Cub, she realises that, ‘[H]er life was unfolding into something larger by the day, like one of those rectangular gas-station maps that open out to the size of a windshield’ (Kingsolver 2012, 216). So Kingsolver meets Ghosh’s individual drama/large context challenge by effectively linking the two, thereby confirming the absolute meaningfulness of climate change for what we might otherwise think of as individual lives remote from, and unaffected by, it. Again this answers the perennial question ‘What’s it got to do with me?’ in a way that could be taken as more effective for some than a prospective heat map for 2050, drawn from IPCC data, for whatever location the questioner happens to live in. By the end of the novel, this surge in the size of Dellarobia’s life has turned into the capacity to offer some advice to her son, Preston: ‘[T]here’s some kind of juice in our brains that makes us only care about what’s in front of us right this minute … If I could teach you one thing, Preston, that’s it. Think about what’s coming at you later on’ (Kingsolver 2012, 589). Evidently this advice is aimed not only at Preston, but at all of us, and it bears directly on climate change.
Dellarobia’s life and the bigger forces of climate change are also linked through the theme of denial –a key aspect of the climate change debate. On the opening page of the book, for example, as she contemplates the affair she is about to embark on, she muses, ‘[P]lenty of people took this way out, looking future damage in the eye and naming it something else’ (Kingsolver 2012, 1-2). Dellarobia wrestles with denial throughout the story, thinking perhaps that it is a trait of human nature that gets in the way of doing the right thing at both the personal and the larger level. She is frustrated at her husband Cub’s approach to crisis – ‘[I]n case of fire, take a nap’ (Kingsolver 2012, 53), and then she tells Byron, ‘I think people are scared to face up to a bad outcome’ (Kingsolver 2012, 318) before lamenting to him, once he has explained climate change to her, ‘I’m not saying I don’t believe you, I’m saying I can’t’ (Kingsolver 2012, 392; emphasis in the original).
The roots of denial in Dellarobia’s life go deep, partly as a result of her lived experience. Kingsolver chooses to put her in a poor family in a poor town, surrounded by an extended family and other neighbours who live a hand-to-mouth existence, permanently on the verge of going under. This gives her the opportunity to ask questions about the relevance of climate change and its effects for people in poor communities: ‘[T]he environment got assigned to the other team’, she tells Byron at one point, ‘[W]orries like that are not for people like us. So says my husband’ (Kingsolver 2012, 445). One obvious question she asks herself is why the trees on which the monarchs are over-wintering should be saved when logging them would produce a decent – if one-off – income for the family: ‘[S]he wished she could just tell the truth’, Dellarobia thinks to herself, ‘[T]he whole of it. That Bear was about to clear-cut this mountain for cash, and that they really did need the money’ (Kingsolver 2012, 287). The problem, as Dellarobia sees it, is that, ‘[T]here were two worlds here, behaving as if their one was all that mattered. With such reluctance to converse, one with the other. Practically without a common language’ (Kingsolver 2012, 209). This sense of frustration will be familiar to many in the environmental movement.
And this is a movement mercilessly parodied by Kingsolver, through Dellarobia. Its members believe ‘crazy things’, like saving trees for their own sake - ‘[A]n easy want, when they weren’t your trees, or your foreclosure’, thinks Dellarobia (Kingsolver 2012, 60). They are also extremely patronising, as when one explains to Dellarobia that lowering your carbon footprint means using ‘less fossil fuel. To relieve the damage of carbon emissions to the planet’. ‘I know what it means’, Dellarobia replies acidly (Kingsolver 2012, 451). This exchange opens an excruciating dialogue in which the activist asks her to commit to a series of actions that will reduce her carbon footprint. Predictably she is already doing them, not because she is a committed environmentalist, but because she is poor. So she can’t take her own Tupperware to the restaurant for leftovers because she hasn’t been to a restaurant for two years, she can’t buy off Craigslist because she doesn’t have a computer, she already plans her errand route carefully because petrol is so dear, and her husband’s truck is on its third engine which means that they already maintain their vehicle rather than buy a new one. ‘Try to reduce the intake of red meat in your diet’, advises the activist. ‘Are you crazy? I’m trying to increase our intake of red meat’, Dellarobia replies incredulously (Kingsolver 2012, 452). By the toe-curling end of this exchange the activist is skipping recommendation after recommendation until – and this is the one he really should have skipped - ‘Okay, this is the last one … Fly less’ (Kingsolver 2012, 454).
Other climate change themes are presented in a more minor key in Flight Behaviour. Its intergenerational implications are explored through her relationship with her children, as she sees her son’s growing interest in nature: ‘Dellarobia felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide’ (Kingsolver 2012, 341). The possibilities of a technological fix are canvassed – couldn’t the monarchs be sprayed with DDT to make the clear-cut easier asks Dellarobia’s father-in-law (Kingsolver 2012, 75)? And if they aren’t going to be clear-cut, how about eco-tourism – ‘[P]eople would probably pay to see these things’, says Cub (Kingsolver 2012, 76).
The novel concludes with a heavy snowstorm which seems to put paid to the monarch butterflies, but as Dellarobia makes another trip into the hills she sees a fraction of the butterflies resuming their flight patterns. Both her world and the wider world around her have changed massively as Dellarobia plans to leave her husband, move off the farm with her children and return to college. So there is a glimmer of hope here, both for Dellarobia and the world, if not complete redemption.
In sum, Kingsolver is resoundingly successful in meeting Amitav Ghosh’s three challenges for the would-be climate change novelist. First, the mise-en-scène is entirely plausible. It is a commonplace understanding that species respond to climate change by changing their behaviour, so it is entirely believable that monarchs might overwinter in southern Appalachia rather than central Mexico. It wasn’t until I read Kingsolver’s Author’s Note at the end of the novel that I realised that she had created a fictional event. Second, Kingsolver overcomes the difficulty presented by climate change operating over long periods of time that are hard to capture in the confines of a novel by presenting a snapshot in time of one possible effect of climate change. The action takes place over a very few months, but these months stand in as a representation of the centuries over which climate change has developed into the world-historical phenomenon it now is. The whole history of climate change is present, as it were, in the changed behaviour of the monarch butterflies.
Kingsolver uses a similar technique to meet Ghosh’s third problem, which centres on making an ‘individual moral adventure’ relevant to the collective challenge that is climate change. She achieves this by tracing the growth of Dellarobia’s own life and consciousness as she becomes aware of the way in which her small existence in a rural town is connected to earth-shaping forces. Within that growing life, the collective effort required to meet the climate change challenge is represented by Ovid Byron’s research team and Dellarobia’s induction into it, and the environmentalists who descend on the town in all their naïve well-meaningness. This is not just a novel about Dellarobia and her people; it is a novel about Dellarobia, her people, and everything else.
There is one further writerly challenge for the climate change novelist to which Ghosh does not refer, and it relates to the need to impart a certain amount of information to readers who might be less than au fait with the science of climate change. Most creative writing tutors (why is it called that? Is not all writing ‘creative’?) urge their students to ‘show and not tell’, and this is a difficult injunction to follow when it comes to scientific information. So at some point or another, and contrary to both the instinct and the learning of the novelist, an ‘info-dump’ is likely to appear. This can only be camouflaged rather than avoided altogether, so I would add a fourth test to Ghosh’s triumvirate: how well has the climate change novelist hidden the inevitable info-dump? Kingsolver does so in a rather predictable way, through conversations between scientist Byron and interested citizen Dellarobia, in which she asks questions and he answers them. In this way, Dellarobia is a surrogate for the less-than-fully-informed reader. Her questions are our questions, and Byron is our guide. There is a degree of perhaps inevitable ‘clunkiness’ in these exchanges and the camouflage hiding the info-dump occasionally slips. But this is no more than a very minor chip in the magnificent edifice that is Flight Behaviour - a genuine candidate for the best novel written to date about climate change, and one that stands a good chance of still being read in 50 years’ time as people try to come to terms with whatever legacy we will have left them.
Ian McEwan’s novel also starts with an infidelity and both Flight Behaviour and Solar feature scientists as central characters, but at that point all similarities cease. McEwan is a magnificent novelist, rightly garlanded with multiple prizes and with a secure reputation as one of the best British novelists of his – and perhaps any – generation. But something went wrong with Solar, at least when judged against Ghosh’s three challenges.
The plot centres on Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who has run out of ideas. He has been given the sinecure of running a research laboratory investigating renewable energy, where he encounters younger, able and idealistic younger colleagues who annoy him intensely. Beard is jaundiced, cynical and on his fifth marriage.
The novel is full of affairs, between one of the young researchers (Tom Aldous) and Beard’s wife, and between Beard and whoever Beard happens to be with at any given moment in the story – or so it seems. Aldous has developed a technique for artificial photosynthesis, and through a series of unlikely events (including Aldous’ death), Beard comes into possession of his research notes and secures venture capital to build an experimental plant in the US.
The novel ends as the power plant is being opened, at which point Beard’s latest wife (Melissa), his latest lover (Darlene), and the man he has framed for Aldous’ death (Tarpin) all converge on him to spoil the party. At one point, Beard travels with a band of artists (he is the only scientist) to the Arctic, a trip McEwan himself made in 2005 when he was invited by the environmental group Cape Farewell to join a group of artists and scientists on a trip to Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. McEwan credits this trip with providing the inspiration for Solar, largely because of what he saw as the comic contradiction between the idealism of the participants and the ‘little worms of self-interest, laziness and innate chaos’ he saw in his colleagues’ behaviour (in Brown 2010).
So how does Solar measure up against Ghosh’s three challenges – or four, if we take into account the challenge of camouflaging the info-dump? The first, it will be remembered, relates to the issue of improbability, and the difficulty of making credible a phenomenon like climate change which has such un-believable ramifications. The problem with Solar is not so much its struggle with depicting climate change in believable ways, but with the improbability of so much else that happens in the novel. First we are offered a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who, we are told, ‘was not wholly sceptical about climate change’ (McEwan 2010, 15) – in which case he would either be right in among or just outside the 3% of scientists who are not sure if, to repeat a statistic mentioned earlier, ‘[C]limate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities’ (NASA 2018). This is improbable, though not of course impossible – indeed Solar would have been a very different and perhaps more challenging novel if McEwan had taken climate change scepticism as his point of departure.
Similarly, on the expedition to the Arctic, ‘[E]veryone but Beard was worried about global warming’ (McEwan 2010, 67). This moment of detail is so unlikely that it puts at risk the reader’s engagement with everything else McEwan has to say. Similarly, McEwan presents a set-piece encounter between Beard and the young researcher Aldous where Aldous is extolling the virtues of solar energy. Beard’s negative reaction is not rooted in science as we might expect, but in his impression that the term ‘solar energy’ had ‘a dubious halo of meaning, an invocation of New Age Druids in robes dancing around Stonehenge at Midsummer’s dusk’ (McEwan 2010, 25). ‘Most things were improbable’, muses Beard at one point (McEwan 2010, 33), and this reaction to solar energy from a Nobel Prize-winning scientist is surely one of them.
Again, Aldous’s death by tripping over a carpet in Beard’s house and cracking his head open is unlikely, and McEwan does little to make this absolutely pivotal moment in the novel believable. Instead he pushes us in the other direction by having Beard think to himself, literally, ‘[I]t was too improbable’ (McEwan 2010, 90). Indeed! Believability is not a virtue in itself for novels, of course; if it were, then fantasy and science fiction would not be as hugely popular as they are. But Ghosh is surely right to say that if an author wants a topic like climate change taken seriously, then plausibility is an essential ingredient in the package.
McEwan deals with Ghosh’s second challenge – that of representing the enormity of climate change in the confines of the novel – largely by ignoring it. Solar is notable for the absence of change of any kind: the main character, Beard, is as grotesque at the end as at the beginning, and none of the other characters are drawn with the kind of depth required to be able to write development into them. For Beard, and for the reader, climate change itself comprises no more than ‘the background to the news’, a phenomenon which he ‘vaguely deplores’ and about which he expects governments to ‘meet and take action’ (McEwan 2010, 15).
As for the third problem, that of relating the individual’s ‘moral journey’, which Ghosh takes to be at the heart of the contemporary literary novel, to the collective challenge of climate change, Beard’s personal journey is not so much immoral as amoral. This leaves him incapable of taking up an ethical stance on the issue of climate change, and having chosen to cast his principal character in this light, it also leaves McEwan himself boxed in as far as ethical debate is concerned. To be fair, this seems to have been absolutely deliberate on McEwan’s part, reluctant as he evidently was to grapple with the ethical dimensions of climate change: ‘I couldn’t quite see how a novel would work without falling flat with moral intent’, he said in one interview (in Brown 2010).
But just as any claim to ‘common sense’ masks an ideological viewpoint, so amoral cynicism or a counsel of despair amounts to a world view despite itself. McEwan’s version of the info-dump is a speech Beard gives to potential investors when he is drumming up funds for his artificial photosynthesis plant. At one point in the speech, McEwan has Beard say: ‘[F]or humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and co-operation, the satisfaction of profit’ (McEwan 2010, 149).
This prise de position is pregnant with the possibility of drilling down into the compulsions that may render our attempts to deal with catastrophic climate change wholly inadequate. Are they instinctive and atavistic, for example, or are they driven by the incentives embedded in a hegemonic economic system? But the promise is stillborn and the novel wends its way towards a conclusion in a downtown diner as Beard’s latest wife, his latest lover and his young daughter bear down on him. The final lines are decorated with a moment of double entendre cleverness, when we are told that Beard experiences an ‘unfamiliar, swelling sensation’ as his daughter approaches. It is of a piece with the rest of his life when Beard finds himself doubting ‘that anyone would ever believe him now if he tried to pass it off as love’ (McEwan 2010, 279).
As one would expect with McEwan there are moments of stunning brilliance in Solar – the crisp-eating scene on a train is dazzling (McEwan 2010, 125-7), as is his description of London from the air as Beard’s aircraft comes into land (McEwan 2010, 107-11). Indeed, McEwan is such a clever and knowing writer that one wonders if one has missed something in commenting so bleakly upon it. In the end, perhaps, McEwan really does feel that the whole situation is hopeless: we are all too venal and short-sighted to meet a challenge as large and far-reaching as climate change.
Like any piece of writing, the novel is a form of communication. Recent experience suggests that it is a very powerful form of communication when it comes to reflecting on far-reaching social and political change. To date, climate change communication has been largely dominated by modes and languages appropriate to science, but more recently novelists have turned their attention to addressing the issue of climate change, and this has given rise to the huge and still-growing phenomenon of ‘cli-fi’. This constitutes an enormous repository of reflections on the causes and consequences of climate change, as valuable in their own way as the five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that tend to dominate the agenda. A small handful of these novels will come to define our attitude to climate change. Which will they be? And what will they communicate? Looking back 50 years hence and with only Flight Behaviour and Solar as fictional guides as to what we were thinking about climate change in the first two decades of the century, future readers might take Kingsolver’s novel as confirmation that we were at least aware of the scale and nature of our predicament and were groping towards something more than an accommodation with it. Solar, on the other hand, might leave them with the impression either that we didn’t especially care, or that it was all rather too much to take on board.
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