Onyx reviews: Solar by Ian McEwan
Michael Beard isn't an attractive or likeable protagonist. He's aging, and
not gracefully. Overweight, and will become more so over the decade spanned by Solar. He's lazy
and slovenly—there are mushrooms growing at the baseboard of his
apartment. He makes regular promises to himself to change his behavior knowing
full well that he'll break them within hours.
He's been coasting on the reputation of his Nobel Prize for years. He's lost
track of his science, gives different versions of the same speech over and over
again, for a fee, lends (for a fee) his name to the letterheads of corporations
in search of Nobel prestige and acts as a consultant to a green energy
He's ruined his fifth marriage the same way he wrecked all the others—by
having yet another affair. For all his slothfulness and poor physical condition,
he's irresistible to women. He even manages to remain friends with his ex-wives,
even though he has never told any of them that he loved them. Patrice reacts
differently than the others, using her discovery of his peccadilloes as an
excuse to have her own flings. Beard doesn't know how to react to this—the
more she ignores him, the more attractive he finds her. He even goes so far as
to confront her new lover.
When things go badly, Beard retreats to the arctic
with a group of artists that is cogitating over solutions to global warming, an
experience that is based on something the author participated in. To date,
Beard's biggest contribution to this problem was to casually suggest an idea
about wind power that was taken more seriously than he intended, an idea that is
now consuming the valuable resources of his think tank, even though most people
realize the strategy has little chance at success. There is too much at stake
politically to back down, so research and development continues.
He is the
only scientist who joins this group in the frozen north. He's vastly out of his
comfort zone and suffers numerous humiliations along the way. The biggest irony
of the situation is that this group of people who think they can save the planet
can't even keep track of their outdoor gear for a week, and none of them
appreciate the irony in the amount of energy expended getting the participants
to the remote location and supporting them while they're there. McEwan lampoons
scientific research and academia in general, poking holes in its pufferies and
pretensions, and also in the celebrities-for-a-cause movement.
When he gets
back to England, an unexpected and harrowing incident delivers into his hands
research that expands on his prize-winning Conflation Theory, material that
demonstrates a potential solution to the energy crisis using artificial
photosynthesis. The rain of light falling on the planet is an untapped reserve
that clever men can exploit. Beard was once a clever man, conversant with the
finer details of quantum mechanics, but the science has left him behind. This
file that drops into his hands provides him with the chance to have a second act
in his life, and that he is unscrupulously co-opting the intellectual property
of another man bothers him not the least.
Using the controversy and quantum
physics of global warming as a vehicle to explore a simultaneously charming and
repulsive character like Michael Beard is the sort of thing only someone like
Ian McEwan would dare. He is a fascinating story teller—he knows how to
use mundane situations to build character and theme. Beard aboard an airplane as it banks and banks and banks again in a holding pattern over Heathrow, for example, is a window on the different aspects of his life, past and present.
Beard sticks his foot in his mouth when he starts rambling during a speech about
the genetic reasons why men are superior at science over women. However, this
indiscretion only briefly derails his career and before long his currency as a
Nobel Prize winner wins out. McEwan has direct experience with such media
firestorms and the way the press moves nimbly on to consume its next victim.
details his downward spiral, starting in 2000, jumping to 2005 and finally to
2009, when the fruits of his patents begin to bloom in the New Mexico desert.
Though he continues to cheat on his lovers, his sights are set progressively
lower, until he ends up with a drunk who has been known to pass out in the
gutter on occasion. Several sins from his past converge at the end and the only
question that remains is whether (and how) he will receive the comeuppance he so
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