Monday, May 10, 2010

Solar: McEwan's Cynical Scientist

You won't find too many literary characters more despicable than Michael Beard, the star of Ian McEwan's new novel, Solar. Michael is the prototypical dumb smart guy — he's a capable, well-respected physicist, but he can't seem to get his personal life together, and Solar is basically a study of his (deplorable) character. When the novel opens, Michael, a serial philanderer, is trudging amidst the ruins of his failed fifth marriage and happily resting on the laurels of the Nobel Prize he won decades ago.

Solar is also a novel of ideas, to use a cliche — McEwan is an incredibly skillful writer, easing us in and out of complex scientific and philosophical notions in a way that enlivens them, keeping the reader engaged. To me, one of the more interesting parts of the novel is a discussion of why more women don't go into physics. To get to the root of this question, we see Michael, as a scientist and therefore staunch objectivist, defending his discipline against what he believes to be silly postmodernists who believe that science is only one of many possible ways of understanding the world — on par with philosophy, sociology and religion.

To relate this to climate change, Michael's opponents would say that it's just as legitimate for fundamentalist Christians to be exasperated by those who don't believe in God as it is for scientists to dismiss as idiots people who don't "believe" in climate change. Obviously, most scientists would disagree with the validity of that analogy.

Ultimately, though, this novel is about Michael. We travel with him from the Arctic to his London home to the desert of New Mexico, where he tries to develop a new solar energy technology. Ostensibly, his goal is develop a source of clean energy and save the world from climate change, which seems very admirable, but only until you realize that he's only doing it for personal fame and fortune. Throughout the story, you constantly feel bad for the people, his women especially, who are caught in Michael's misogynistic maneuverings. Even so, there are some laugh-out-loud funny parts (during his trip the Arctic, Michael stops to take a pee, and his thing gets frozen to his zipper), especially in the first few chapters as McEwan seems to realize he needs you on his side to continue telling Michael's depraved tale.

So I won't render an absolute judgment on this book, because it'll appeal to different folks. If you're turned off by a protagonist who is such a turn-off, you'll hate this book. But if you don't need likable characters to enjoy a novel, this could work. For me, the cynical view of climate change action — that the majority of those working on solutions are either greatly deluded or only doing so for personal gain — was more than a bit irritating, which is too bad, because I enjoyed the writing, the physics, and the discussions about renewable energy. I also had fun rooting for Michael to get his comeuppance.

(Also, if you are skeptical of or just cynical about climate change, you'll probably really dig this novel. It'll fit nicely on your shelf next to State of Fear, by Michael Crichton.)


  1. Thanks for the review...I don't necessarily need likeable characters for a book, but just good writing, and McEwan has never let me down where that is concerned. I may have to check this one out.

  2. I'd like to see a post about deplorable, despicable characters in fiction. Doesn't David Foster Wallace have a book like that (can't think of the title, but something about interviews). Can you really enjoy a book with a horrible main character?

  3. After reading Atonement and being bored to tears despite actually enjoying McEwan's writing style, I've been afraid to try anything else by him. I also really have trouble with books when I HATE the protagonist. At the same time, I LOVED State of Fear, and in general I like books that make me think about climate change.
    And so, I might actually read this book. Even though after your review I'm sort-of thinking I probably won't like it.

  4. i have this book on my list after it was reviewed on the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club, but I have to say it's pretty far down the list. I loved Atonement and think a humorous turn to his writing would be interesting, it's just that there are a lot of other things i want to read more at the moment. Still, your review made it sound really interesting so maybe I should push it up the list a little.

  5. @Jo-Jo - I don't need likable characters to like a book, either - and you're right, McEwan is definitely a master of his craft, which is on full display here.

    @bibliophiliac - You're thinking of "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." That was more an experiment in form rather than trying to convince you to like a group of stories with bad characters. Sure, I think you can definitely like a novel with bad characters - because, as in Solar, the pleasure in the book is rooting against them.

    @Brizmus - Uh oh, I think we've found where our tastes (and possibly politics) diverge. I LOVED Atonement, but thought State of Fear was one of the silliest, most unintentionally funny books I'd ever read. But we can still be friends, right? ;)

    @mummazappa - Yeah, McEwan is a lot funnier than I thought he'd be. I'd always had this image of him as the dry British novelist, but as Solar is largely satire, apparently he can crank up the laughs whenever he wants to!

  6. I've only read Atonement and Saturday by McEwan but this book does sound interesting. Probably will wait for the paperback,since my TBR pile overflows with literary goodness at the moment:)

  7. Great review! but I am with you..don't think i would enjoy it..might get to irritated!!

  8. Yes, great review - I loved "Solar" myself. Found it an engrossing, slyly comic read. I admit I'm a McEwan fan, but actually wasn't sure I'd like the novel after having read some disappointing reviews of it. Was very glad to be proven wrong because McEwan is one of the finest writers around. (Michael Chabon is another.)

  9. I enjoyed reading your review very much. I too thought it was well written and I enjoyed the physics but really didn't like the story much.
    Vinegar Hill was my first Ansay experience and I definitely want to read more. Thank you for visiting Fresh Ink Books and for your comments on my review. Glad you found some books we have in common.

  10. I had mixed feelings about Solar. Grateful for more McEwan but not convinced of his skills with the funny. I wrote it all up here: