Solar, Ian McEwan's 2010 darkly comic novel about global warming and human failure is now available in paperback from Anchor books. Although its reception on its original publication was somewhat mixed, and it is probably not the best-selling author at his best, Ian McEwan at half speed is still a better bet than more than a few of his contemporaries. Not only does he deal with important themes without facile oversimplification, but he does so with a humor, a wit and an ironic eye that skewers the inadequacies of those supposed to be the best and brightest among us.
Michael Beard, the central figure of the novel, is a Nobel Prize winning physicist who has accomplished little since his award. As the novel opens he is approaching his sixties. He is balding and short and overweight — tubby is the descriptive term McEwan uses. He is on his fifth marriage, none of which, including his latest, he seems to have taken very seriously. He is a man unable to control his appetites. He is an inveterate womanizer. He is slovenly and lazy. When it comes to food, he can't avoid a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips at the airport. He gorges on smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres to the point of vomiting. He drinks himself into drunkenness. And despite his less than leading man good looks he manages to find more than his share of women to satisfy his lustful behavior. If you think of the seven deadly sins, Michael Beard is a man who seems to be guilty of most, if not all of them.
In a fairly complicated plot, that involves broken marriages, an accidental death framed as a murder, the expropriation of another man's ideas for the development of solar energy, McEwan guides the reader through one very flawed man's attempt to profit from the catastrophe of global warming. There is a lot of science, but not so much that it should frighten readers away. Scientific ideas are used mainly for a sense of realism. This is, after all, a book about a physicist, a man who won a prize for his elucidation of the Beard¬-Einstein Conflation (notice whose name comes first). Besides it is not as if the scientific theories about solar energy discussed in the book are intended as actual solutions to the problems of climate change; whatever validity they may or may not have, this is not after all a scientific treatise.