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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 government agency.

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. 

Later, 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.

Solar 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 richly deserves.

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