- Ian McEwan's Next Novel and the Future of Ecocriticism
Ian McEwan, one of Britain's foremost living novelists, is writing about climate change again. The first time around, in The Child in Time, he wove a gripping and moving narrative about the loss of a child and the disintegration of a marriage into a dystopian, ecofeminist critique of Thatcherism. This time, apparently, it will be a partly comic story of a physicist called Frank Beard whose life is turned upside down by the award of a Nobel prize. My mission in this essay is doubly rash: to criticize the earlier novel, which corresponds fairly neatly to the prevalent antiessentialist ideology in literary theory, and to applaud the next one.1 Since it has not yet been published, and I was not even present at his reading of an extract at the Hay Festival, I will have to project an imaginary version out of his published comments and the thematic and philosophical drift of his recent novels. In his reflections on moral agency [End Page 695] in Atonement, on political crisis and scientific mercy in Saturday, and on human nature in all of his work since Enduring Love, McEwan has provided an implicit, and possibly deliberate, critique of many of the major ethical assumptions in ecocriticism.2 His next novel will rapidly become a key text in any ecocritical reading list, provided it can take part in reshaping its academic audience. The keynote in my argument, and in McEwan's decisive change of direction since The Child in Time, is the return of the notion of human nature.
The Child in Time as Ecofeminist Parable
A writer who has been nominated for the Man Booker prize four times, whose novels are popular set reading in British secondary schools, and who has achieved critical acclaim and publishing success throughout the English-speaking world might be expected to be the object of a significant academic industry, yet there have been just three critical overviews of McEwan's novels in the last ten years.3 Until very recently, attention was focused somewhat disproportionately upon his 1987 novel The Child in Time, which found favor for four reasons: its crystallization of numerous stylistic virtues in McEwan's earlier novels and short stories in a more substantial and sophisticated narrative; its presentation of a dystopian future as an extension of Thatcherism; its sympathetic exploration of the "new physics" in terms of a "feminization" of science; and its challenge to patriarchal masculinity. Writing an introduction to his libretto for Michael Berkeley's oratorio or Shall We Die? in 1983, [End Page 696] McEwan characterized the struggle to head off nuclear annihilation in terms that resonate strongly with ecofeminism:
One could characterise these two world-views—the Newtonian and that of the new physics—as representing a male and female principle, yang and yin. In the Newtonian universe, there is objectivity; its impartial observer is logical and imagines himself to be all-seeing and invisible…. The observer in the Einsteinian universe believes herself to be part of the nature she studies, part of its constant flux; her own consciousness and the surrounding world pervade each other and are interdependent … she has no illusions of her omniscience, and yet her power is limitless because it does not reside in her alone.(19)4
The stark choice facing humanity, he thought, could be expressed simply as "shall there be womanly times, or shall we die?" (31). In the final section of the oratorio, the male and female voices sing together for the first time:
The planet does not turn for us alone.Science is a form of wonder, knowledge a form of love.Are we too late to save ourselves?Shall we change, or shall we die?(32)
Having become infamous in his short stories and novels of the 1970s for his gory plots, ahistorical scenarios, and fascination with sexual sadomasochism, McEwan's swerve to a far more compassionate and politically engaged writing is all the more striking for the clarity and directness of its articulation in the libretto. [End Page 697]
The Child in Time is a far more complex work of art than or...