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.
More interesting to the scientifically challenged reader are some of the other themes developed in the book. There are some interesting scenes dissecting the conflict between the hard science belief in the observable fact and the soft social sciences’ post modern relativism. Beard gets into trouble, for example, when he tries to assert that genetic differences in the sexes account for the scarcity of women studying physics. A section describing an expedition to the Arctic with a group of artists suggests that ice sculpture and dance may not be the best way to deal with global warming. Poetry, as Beard demonstrated in attracting the first of his wives, is most effective as a means of seduction. Most thought provoking is the ironic notion that for those engaged economically in the solution of the problem, the threat of catastrophe is essential to their goal. As Beard tells his business partner in developing a process for cheap solar energy when he begins to worry that there is some question about the reality of the problem: “It’s a catastrophe. Relax!”
McEwan has written a novel that will have you thinking one minute and laughing out loud the next. He has created a self absorbed, self indulgent protagonist who is as much a villain as he is a hero. Michael Beard is not a man the reader is ever going to feel sorry for. He is a man who deserves everything that happens to him. There may be some question about what all these women see in this short, fat bald man who doesn’t age gracefully. He is at best a most unlikely romantic figure. Indeed that may be the most difficult thing in the book for the reader to accept. On the other hand if you can buy into that and don’t trouble too much over the science, Solar is a book, you should find entertaining.