Solar, by Ian McEwan

I don’t normally review novels here, except when they’re particularly relevant. Ian McEwan’s Solar would qualify, being a novel inspired in part by climate change.

It tells the story of Michael Beard, an overweight and aging physicist who won the Nobel prize twenty years ago and hasn’t had an interesting idea since. He plays on his fame and drifts between speaking engagements and sinecures, his private life is a disastrous series of failed marriages.

That all changes when a freak accident leaves him in possession of a file full of brilliant ideas from a young post-grad, and claiming the work as his own, Beard sets out to build a new technology that will single-handedly solve the world’s energy crisis and stop climate change.

I won’t say any more about the story, as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, not that this is a particularly narrative driven novel. Like the protagonist, it sort of bumbles along, following Beard to the Arctic and back, to conferences, lectures, bored nights in motel rooms, until it suddenly picks up at the end as Beard’s various mistakes all suddenly begin to catch up with him all at once.

Beard isn’t malicious, he’s just a careless, selfish and lazy man. He ignores his health and his weight problems, neglects his relationships, re-writes the past to avoid confronting his mistakes. He constantly swears to go on a diet, and immediately fails. He is deluded and greedy, and cannot summon the will to change, even as the consequences of his bad choices converge on him.

In that sense, I found myself reading Beard as a kind of ‘everyman’ character. None of us feel responsible for climate change, we all regret it and want to do our bit. We’re just not prepared to give up the things we enjoy. We’d rather ignore it and hope it goes away, despite the increasingly frequent and ever-louder reminders that it’s real and is happening.

I quite enjoyed Solar, which actually surprised me a little, as Michael Beard is such a thoroughly unlikeable character that I nearly gave up halfway through. Much of the book is mundane, well written but rather empty and moping. Nothing of any real interest happens until a good third of the way in, and the ending stretches credulity a little. Nevertheless, it’s a satire and it’s attempting something rather bold – exploring climate change through the lens of human nature. I think McEwan pulls it off, although I do wonder what his established fans will make of it.


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