The main character, Michael Beard, is a Nobel prize winning physicist with his best work a long way behind him. He’s taken on the figurehead role for a new renewable energy institute.
He initially sounds dubious as to the importance of climate change and seems to have taken the role largely for the money.
However, by the end of the novel, which covers the years 2000-2009, he his convinced about the importance of his innovation in solar energy in relation to dealing with climate change. He even delivers the following darkly humourous passage to convince a colleague that they need not worry about acquiring funding for their project:
“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, the inhabitants of the island of Carteret in the South Pacific are being evacuated because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. Malarial mosquitoes are advancing northwards across Europe… Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!”
Beard is quite an unpleasant character and, as is typical for McEwan’s novels, the story develops around a series of problems that snowball out of control from seemingly unimportant events. That said, this is probably the most comical McEwan book I’ve read – one or two scenes are full-on slapstick.
There’s also a strange part of the book that I recognised as being lifted from Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Even more strangely, when Beard re-tells these events at a later stage in the book another character questions the authenticity of Beard’s story (and even mentions that it was in the Douglas Adams book!) In retrospect, this small sub-story reflects the main course of events.
Perhaps the key theme, though, is the nature of academic achievement. In particularly, Beard’s reflections on his glory days and his more recent accidental absorption of a younger colleague’s similar purple patch. It’s an engrossing and tangled story that develops…
Overall, it’s a tragic, darkly comic romp through the lives of some seriously flawed people.