Monday, September 03, 2012

Solar and State of Fear - Fictions and Global Warming

Recently, I have read two books. First one is Ian McEwan's Solar, and the second one is Michael Crichton's State of Fear. No similarities in overall plot structures or the characters between these two books, but both of them have Global Warming as a part of the main stories.

When Michael Crichton's State of Fear came out in 2004, I almost bought it, however, reading the negative reviews in prominent newspapers and magazines, I decided not to.

This year, while browsing my old reading wish list, I came back to this book again, and this time I decided to give it a try. And I am glad that I did it so. Like Crichton's other fast paced novels I had read many years ago, like Sphere, Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Lost World and Prey, I found State of Fear was an entertaining and quite absorbing read. 798 pages length of this book that includes the main story, and the appendix containing the writer's explanation why he had written this book in a very controversial theme, and also the amount of research he had put into writing it, the bibliography that points toward some of the books that had framed the writer's mind creating the plot, and his globe trotting characters.

Michael Crichton was a writer who knew how to hook any reader from the very first page of his story. Too bad that this great writer died so early in life at the age of 66 in 2008. Like other great writers of past centuries, for example Jules Verne, Michael Crichton's fictions are mind bending, talking about technologies that are possibly far advanced than contemporary technologies. As an ardent observer of science and technologies, I do not believe all the astonishing claims that State of Fear made regarding Global Warming. I also found that the writer was not balanced presenting the two sides of Global Warming debate. His protagonists, Kenner, Morton and others were presented very well informed holding their views that Global Warming, especially, the drastic climate change, is nothing but a hoax, perpetrated by biased scientists and establishment of status quo (politicians, media and lawyers: PML). While the other main characters of this novel who were on the pro side of global warming debate, seemed to be very weak, and not able to match intellectual depths of the global warming deniers.

State of Fear is an entertaining read. A fiction written with plausible speculative fashion, though the graphs and footnotes in the book pointed to a mind of a writer who was himself trying to evaluate all the claims that global warming debates generate every year. For some parts of our world, the idea of global warming does not only reside in nicely plotted charts or graphs. Though I cannot claim with absolute certainty, but the changes in weather pattern, violent storms, receding land areas in coastal regions, point toward changing of global climate.

One surprising aspect of State of Fear is that, it was published on December 7, 2004. And one of the main episodes of the story was related to a massive tsunami. The same year the book was published, in fact only a few weeks after, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake occurred on 26 December. The resulting tsunami from this earthquake was one of the most devastating episode of our lifetime, when close to 280,000 people died in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and 11 other nations.

Michael Crichton's conspiratorial plot seems to me far fetched. Yes, in human history, human beings have shown the lowest of the low depravity and unimaginable cruelty to fellow beings. However, human beings have also learned from history. There are wars and violence, and there will be more local wars and violence, but the global financial dependencies that world's nations have now, possibly is a natural deterrent for any widespread self defeating conspiracy that Michael Crichton has described in his book.

Having said my above argument against the conspiratorial view of State of Fear, I would like to point out to the Appendix of this book, where the writer provided two historical examples that clearly demonstrated the danger from the deadly combination between science and politics. First example was eugenics, that was supported by leading scientists and writers of early 20th century, up to the end of second world war. Here is a graphic quote: "The Germans were admirably progressive. They setup ordinary looking houses where "mental defectives" were brought and interviewed one at a time, before being led into a back room, which was, in fact, a gas chamber. There, they were gassed with carbon monoxide, and their bodies disposed of in a crematorium located on the property. Eventually, this program was expanded into a vast network of concentration camps located near railroad lines, enabling the efficient transport and killing of ten million undesirables."

Michael Crichton gave the above example to point out that the leading scientists of the time was supporting eugenics, though they didn't have any good knowledge of gene or DNA. "The eugenics movement was really a social program masquerading as a scientific one. What drove it was concern about immigration and racism and undesirable people moving into one's neighborhood or country. Once again, vague terminology helped conceal what was really going on." Like the author, I also found it most distressing that the "scientific establishment in both United States and Germany did not mount any sustained protest. Quite the contrary. In Germany scientists quickly fell into line with the program. Modern German researchers have gone back to review Nazi documents from the 1930s" and found "active role scientists themselves played in regard to Nazi race policy where research was aimed at confirming the racial doctrine...no external pressure can be documented."

Though a very controversial subject Michael Crichton used for his State of Fear novel, for which the mainstream scientists agree that there is a serious problem that need urgent global attention and practical actions, the writer reminded in his Appendix note that the past history of human belief is a cautionary tale. "We have killed thousands of our fellow human beings because we believe they had signed a contract with the devil, and had become witches. We still kill more than a thousand people each year for witchcraft. In my view, there is only one hope for humankind to emerge from what Carl Sagan called "the demon-haunted world" of our past. That hope is science. But as Alston Chase put it, "when the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power." That is the danger we face now. And that is why the intermixing of science and politics is a bad combination, with a bad history. We must remember the history, and be certain that what we present to the world as knowledge is disinterested and honest."

This is where I found a resemblance in Ian McEwan's novel Solar. In this novel a Nobel prize winning physicist falls into the trap of self deceptions, and outright stealing of his graduate student's research ideas and using it as his own. The idea that this anti-hero protagonist named Michael Beard stole was to devise an artificial photosynthesis process to create cheap renewable energy. The hyperactive selfish genes makes Michael Beard unable to feel any remorse to his wrong deeds, or love toward his beloved. His delusional rationalization of every dishonest action led toward his ultimate collapse, but the troubling part that Ian McEwan showed and strikingly shared with Michael Crichton's State of Fear is that Beard's crimes remained unnoticed by everyone, the court, the law enforcement entities, and even his lovers and ex wives did not have any clue of his wretchedness. It was the aura of his personality and his Nobel prize winning name kept everyone in the dark until the very end.

Ian McEwan's Solar and Michael Crichton's State of Fear are both excellent read as fictions, though one may not agree with all the speculations and sometime overarching tone.

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