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June 26, 2010 12:27 am
Solar, by Ian McEwan, Cape RRP£18.99, 304 pages
Ultimatum, by Matthew Glass, Atlantic RRP£9.99, 400 pages
Sunshine State, by James Miller, Little, Brown RRP£12.99, 352 pages
Far North, by Marcel Theroux, Faber RRP£7.99, 304 pages
In-Flight Entertainment, by Helen Simpson, Jonathan Cape RRP£14.99, 144 pages
For most readers of the Financial Times, summer books are likely to be enjoyed at a beach or by a poolside reached after a journey by air that will have contributed in some modest way to the threatened destruction of civilisation, or indeed of all human life.
Flying from London to New York, the average passenger is responsible for 500kg of carbon dioxide per flight – more than the average Ghanaian emits in a year. Air travel is far from being the greatest contributor to global CO2 emissions – its impact is dwarfed by the effect of deforestation, for example – but it carries a powerful symbolic charge.
The miracle and luxury of affordable air travel, the convenience and opportunities that it creates, are among the most seductive gifts of modern technology – but ones that Greens say we must restrict in the interests of saving the planet. Whether or not you accept the mainstream scientific consensus on the threat of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions, there is no denying that the idea of global warming now looms over our consciousness.
As the central character observes in Ian McEwan’s Solar , every age has needed “to believe that one was always living at the end of days, that one’s own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world, and therefore made more sense, or was just a little less irrelevant”.
For an earlier generation, it was the threat of nuclear annihilation. Now that danger has subsided – for the time being, at least – we have the prospect of catastrophic global warming to take its place. Speaking to The Guardian newspaper recently, McEwan mused that he was “surprised there aren’t more novels [about climate change],” given what an excellent subject it made. He has obviously not been looking hard enough, because fiction about climate change has been cropping up all over the place, from airport thrillers to domestic comedies.
Mike Hulme, a professor at the University of East Anglia, has described the idea of climate change as a “resource of the imagination” that can “inspire new artistic creations”, and many writers are now starting to realise that promise.
Some of the best novels of the past decade have had an apocalyptic theme, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Margaret Atwood’s linked works of “speculative fiction”, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Their central disasters are not global warming, but they are haunted by societal breakdown and the struggle for survival in a hostile environment.
More recently, a new crop of books tackle the prospect of global warming head-on in interesting and exciting ways, even if the results are not always successful.
McEwan is developing a penchant for topical subject matter: Saturday, his previous novel, is a rumination on violence and love in the age of the “war on terror”. But while the tone there was high seriousness, Solar, with its deeply unsympathetic protagonist humorously named Michael Beard, is an academic farce in the manner of Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge, addressing the erratic progress of climate science and renewable energy over the past decade.
The decision to turn a satirical eye on the climate change circus was a good one: it is a subject rich in targets for ridicule, and the field’s characteristic mix of woolly-minded artists and razor-sharp entrepreneurs is nicely evoked.
The technical details, including abstruse arcana such as zero-point energy and artificial photosynthesis, have clearly been meticulously researched. Rooftop wind turbines in urban areas are, quite rightly, written off as a waste of time and money.
McEwan has no reputation as a humorist, however, and on this evidence it is easy to see why. It is baffling that Solar was judged the winner, in May, of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. There are episodes involving urination and vomiting, an aimless digression about postmodern theories of scientific knowledge and a superstructure of a plot about Beard’s serial infidelities, none of which are engaging. McEwan, often brilliant on marriage, is dull here on adultery.
Occasional flashes of bitter wit strike home, as when Beard, seeking to secure funding for his solar power project, announces “here’s the good news”, and goes on to list a gruesome catalogue of death and destruction caused by climate change.
A trip by a group of well-meaning artists to inspect the damage to Arctic glaciers is one of the most well-observed sections, and in the acknowledgements there is a slightly sheepish thank you to David Buckland and Cape Farewell “for inviting me on a trip to Spitsbergen in February 2005”, which provided the first inspiration for the book.
The great comic novel about climate change, however, has yet to be written. Most other recent treatments of the issue in fiction opt for a more somber tone. Matthew Glass’s Ultimatum is a political thriller in the tradition of Tom Clancy, set in a plausible America of 2032. A sort of riposte to Michael Crichton’s didactically climate-sceptical State of F ear, Ultimatum is one of those rather clunky books where chapters begin with a date and a location, and presidents and their aides meet to explain important plot points to each other, yet manages to be utterly absorbing.
It is hard to imagine that a successful thriller could hinge on the question of whether climate change negotiations should be held inside or outside the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, but Glass pulls it off. There is little violent action; one of the most dramatic confrontations is between an offer of a 24 per cent reduction in emissions over 10 years and a 14 per cent reduction over eight years. The ultimatum of the title amounts to the threat of higher import tariffs on microwave ovens. But the action grips throughout, and in its closing sections the book is impossible to put down.
I have no way of knowing whether Glass’s accounts of conversations at the top level of the Chinese Communist party are realistic – and I suspect nor does he – but his descriptions of western attempts to bargain with China reflect very accurately the discussions among US and European governments. If you see the paperback in an airport bookshop, which seems its natural home, it is well worth picking up.
James Miller’s Sunshine State is a thriller of a more self-consciously literary kind, with epigraphs from Milton and Joseph Conrad. We are back in the America of the near future, but where Glass’s 48th president is a heroic figure, Miller’s 49th is a religious fundamentalist, governing a brutal and fragmenting country.
The state of the punning title is Florida, which has been battered by huge hurricanes and descended into an anarchic interzone, cut off from the remaining states of the union by a heavily guarded border.
Miller, too, has written about the “war on terror” in his widely praised parable Lost Boys, and here he presents a similarly lurid vision of environmental degradation. The opening is straight Ian Fleming-meets-JG Ballard. Our hero, a British special forces soldier, is picked up by his controller in Kensington Gardens to be given his next mission, but the park has been transfigured by rising temperatures, the fountains dried up and overgrown with brown weeds, “the world warping and bending into unrecognisable shapes.”
Within a couple of pages, though, we are back with Conrad, or at least Apocalypse Now. The hero’s mission is to track down and “talk to” his former comrade and brother-in-law, a master of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, believed dead but now re-emerged in Florida. The heart of this particular darkness is the ruined city of Miami, from where the rogue soldier announces himself to the world with mystical, dream-like radio broadcasts.
Sunshine State is entertaining enough, but the shadow of Francis Ford Coppola’s film hangs over it. At one point there is even a ride up-river in a boat with a dope-smoking crew and an African-American manning the machine gun. Some of the phantasmagoric descriptions of Miami are worthy of Ballard himself, such as the tower blocks like “ragged tombstones, their ragged silhouettes looming over a torpid Gomorrah,” but overall Miller does not quite manage to escape his influences.
A more original take on societal breakdown comes from Marcel Theroux in Far North. It has echoes of Cormac McCarthy, but Theroux portrays a world in which people have fled to Siberia and Alaska to escape the devastation of the south.
The book is elegantly structured, with an array of sudden shocks and slow-burning revelations, so it would be a shame to give away much of the plot. The theme of civilisation sliding into barbarism is artfully evoked: a town with the feel of the old west gives way to a settlement reminiscent of the Pilgrim Fathers.
More than the other novelists, Theroux has also thought hard about the philosophical and religious implications of the environmental threat. As his central character observes at one point: “Even if Moses and Mohamed were charlatans, maybe that was better than inflicting the naked truth on people: we are all out here in the desert, and we are alone, and all of us will die. Even if it’s true, maybe it’s not the kindest or most practical thing to tell anyone.”
Good as Far North is, however, after so much over-heating and turbulence it is still a blissful relief to turn to the coolness and clarity of Helen Simpson.
Acclaimed by Jonathan Franzen and many others, but still not as well known as she deserves to be, Simpson is, to my mind, the best short story writer now working in English. Her typical characters are middle-aged and middle-class, often working in the law or finance, generally Londoners – many of them no doubt FT readers – their lives examined with such magnesium-lit precision that they are both acutely realistic and richly colourful.
She, too, has addressed the Iraq war – a pattern is emerging here – in her previous collection, Constitutional. The story, “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life”, says more about the deformations created by the war on the home front in 11 pages than McEwan’s Saturday manages in 279.
Now, with In-Flight Entertainment, she touches on climate change in several of the stories, with air travel a frequent motif. Reading it on a flight from Houston to London, I was torn between sharing the increasing anxiety of the title story’s protagonist and luxuriating in the pure pleasure of her skill. When Simpson addresses the end of civilisation, in the wonderfully dead-pan “Diary of an Interesting Year”, its “mustn’t grumble” tone is more harrowing than any spectacularly imagined cataclysm.
Hulme argues that it is a mistake to see climate change as a problem to be solved; he thinks we have to get used to it and “use the idea of climate change” positively to rethink science, technology, politics and the arts. Judging by the efforts of world leaders, he has a point: if the mainstream scientists are right, climate change is going to be hard to stop. There are worse ways to spend the summer than reading a couple of these books to help you get ready for it.
Ed Crooks is the FT’s energy editor
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