Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Science as Comedy and the Myth of Progress in Ian McEwan's Solar

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Science as Comedy and the Myth of Progress in Ian McEwan's Solar

Article excerpt

The essay suggests that Ian McEwan presents science as comedy in Solarin order to debunk the idea of progress as a modern myth. Contextualizing science as an activity tied to socio-economic and individual interests, humour in Solarmocks human hubris and the belief in salvation through technological advancement.

Before its publication in 2010, Ian McEwan's novel Solar was hailed as a major literary contribution to the climate change debate, an acclaim which raised expectations the author was then accused of not having met. (1) The text's humorous elements have provoked particular disappointment because, as some critics felt, they did not do justice to the goal of increasing public awareness of the serious threat that global warming represents. In the words of Greg Garrard, Solar "is limited both by McEwan's choice of satirical allegory as a genre, and by the topical parables that continually dissipate the momentum of the allegorical plot" ("Solar" 123). Richard Kerridge criticized the novel's protagonist as an "unsympathetic" "version of [Joseph] Meeker's picaro" (157), who merely serves to stress that "the effort to find technologies to save us from climate change [...] is beset on all sides by individuals heedlessly pursuing their own short-term desires and ambitions. Solar is anti-heroic on a general scale. The crisis doesn't bring the best out of anybody. No one rises to the occasion" (156). Other reviewers, such as Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, have appreciated the humour of the novel, especially because it "is [a] way around the moral gravity of the subject [of climate change]," whereas Evi Zemanek endows the form with meaning when she argues that "only in view of its satiric and allegorical dimensions can McEwan's novel be understood as committed literature [... because] the consideration of the satiric-allegorical risk narrative [is] a new form of eco-fiction" (52). Last but not least, The Economist reduced the novel to a fun but otherwise insignificant reading experience because "the plot is barely credible and the scientific setting hard to recognise. A novel to chuckle over, and chuck away" ("Mr Sunshine"). As these examples show, the response to McEwan's Solar has been shaped by readers' different agendas, based on approaching the text either on the basis of its capacity to provide the pleasure of entertainment, or with regard to its presumed ability to build momentum for a political cause.

The comic representation of the world of science, however, has received comparatively little attention so far, and none with respect to the novel's challenge to the myth of progress. This essay attempts to fill these lacunae by analyzing the ways in which humour in Solar serves to locate scientist characters and scientific research within topical philosophical debate. It argues that this formally realist novel is saturated with a variety of comic means that portray science as a human activity in context, a strategy aimed at debunking the idea of social advancement as a modern self-delusion. Science, the analysis will show, is the perfect trope to accomplish this effect, as it is a human achievement strongly identified with technological and epistemological development. The essay suggests that the novel's comic representation of science confronts society with its weaknesses, satirically exposing self-indulgence, corruption, and the dangers of unrestrained consumption that distinguish twenty-firstcentury culture. Scientists and scientific institutions in Solar are tied to economic interest and personal ambition, a connection viewed critically through the modes of comedy that allegorize, exaggerate, mock, and distort the factual in order to expose the self-referential quality of human knowledge and technological advancement. The novel challenges the belief in the salvational potential of scientific progress not only because the latter is unfit to solve problems such as humankind's destructive exploitation of natural resources, but also because, or so the text suggests, such romanticization is at the root of the mechanisms that allow humans to delude themselves into expecting deliverance from their own inventions. …

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