Fiction review: 'Solar'

[ Fri. Apr. 9. 2010 ]

"Unlike in novels," muses a character in Ian McEwan's "Saturday," "moments of precise reckoning are rare in real life." In life, pressing questions are not often resolved. "They simply fade. People don't remember clearly, or they die, or the questions die and new ones take their place."

Perhaps that explains why McEwan doesn't reach for pat answers in his own novels. Our "real life" interest in his political and cultural themes -- Cold War politics in "Black Dogs," the failure of liberalism in "Amsterdam," post-9/11 terrorism and the invasion of Iraq in "Saturday," the science and politics of climate change in his latest novel, "Solar" --  lingers long after we close the book and move on. 

In a Web forum, "What Will Change Everything," McEwan calls for the "full flourishing" of solar technology to replace oil as our primary energy source and repair the damage caused by global warming. He envisions the world's deserts blooming with solar towers that are as expressive of our aesthetic aspirations as medieval cathedrals once were. The plot of "Solar" involves the development of a process to simulate artificial photosynthesis as a cheap, clean energy alternative. 

McEwan is as much scientist as he is novelist, and in "Solar" he finds clever ways to articulate the breadth of the climate change debate, and what may be at stake. Here's an issue that might not fade. The story McEwan tells in "Solar" is certainly not as hopeful or as inspiring as his personal views seem to promise. 

In fact, "Solar" is a dark and savagely funny book, a withering portrait of Michael Beard, the Nobel laureate behind the solar project. Now in his mid-50s, Beard long ago lost the inspiration that fueled his prizewinning research. He's a scientist turned bureaucrat managing a research foundation. Obsessed with sex and food, he is more concerned with his dissolving fifth marriage than he is with innovative science or the condition of the planet. Surface charm notwithstanding, Beard is totally repellent, so much so I found myself rooting for any sort of change, even climate change. An odd accident gives Beard the chance to take revenge on his unfaithful wife and her lovers, and incidentally redeem himself as a New Energy entrepreneur. 

The outlook is fairly bleak. Investors want assurance of "shareholder value" before they'll commit to the solar project. Beard's new love interest demands commitment and children but refuses to think about global warming because "to take the matter seriously would be to think about it all the time," and the routines of daily life won't permit that. 

Beard's corruption may doom the solar project, but he excuses his sickness as a reflection of the planet's condition. He brushes aside his own dire predictions about global warming to embrace "a bit of nihilism." The Earth will do fine without him. "And if it shrugged off all the other humans, the biosphere would soldier on, and in a mere ten million years teem with strange new forms." The question raised by Beard's story is whether his self-loathing and despair reflect humankind's lack of will to make the changes necessary to redirect the fate of the planet. 

-- Vernon Peterson 

Ian McEwan  
$26.95, 304 pages