Of course, it is not just the sciences that have laws: the humanities and the arts do, too. In The Great Derangement, a book that began as four one-hour lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015, the Indian-American novelist Amitav Ghosh (he carries a USA passport) considers the laws of his own practice. The vast majority of novels, he explains, are realistic. In other words, the novel arose to reflect the kind of regularised life that gave you time to read novels – a regularity achieved through the availability of reliable, cheap energy: first, coal and steam, and later, oil.
No wonder, then, that [as Ghosh inexplicably and incorrectly says] “in the literary imagination climate change was somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel”.
Ghosh is keenly aware of and impressively well informed about climate change: in 1978, he witnessed a tornado that ripped through northern Delhi, leaving 30 dead and 700 injured. Yet he has never been able to work this story into his any of his own novels. He complains that his hands are tied: he is trapped in “the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the Earth”. [SAY THAT AGAIN, AMITAVJI?]
The silly and proscriptive thing about Ghosh’s wrongheaded argument is how he traces the novel’s narrow compass back to popular and influential scientific ideas – ideas that championed uniform and gradual processes over cataclysms and catastrophes.
One big complaint about science – that it kills wonder – is the same criticism Ghosh levels at the novel: that it bequeaths us “a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”. Lawfulness in biology is rather like realism in fiction: it is a convention so useful that we forget that it is a convention. [WTF?]
But, if AGW and the gathering sixth mass extinction event have taught us anything, it is that the world is wilder than the laws we are used to would predict. Indeed, if the world really were in a novel – or even in a book of popular science – no one would believe it.