Ian McEwan’s new look has been talked about for quite a long time. Right after On Chesil Beach, he talked about how his new book would deal with climate change, and everyone was quite excited.
Michael Beard is a Nobel Prize winning physicist, and his latest marriage is on the rocks. As it slowly falls apart, though, his work life seems to pick up, with him being able to ride off the back of his past successes with honorary degrees, speaking engagements, and ceremonial chairman roles. But then Beard does something that threatens to undermine the stability of his income, and the already unstable nature of his love life.
Just like every other McEwan novel, I really enjoyed reading this, for if nothing else, McEwan’s effortless style is magical. I love his meandering sentences, his observations into life that manage to be at once witty and elegiac, and his bitingly caustic take on contemporary society. As with some of his other recent novels, including Saturday and Amsterdam, this is helped by having a middle-aged male character as our protagonist, one who seems to be completely out of step with modern society. Even though Michael Beard is on the cutting edge of science, and climate change science in particular (something that is so relevant nowadays), he still doesn’t quite seem to get it. He doesn’t really seem to care about climate change, or really any science at all, and is happy to ride on the coat tails of his old successes, and try and get with as many women as he can. There is a brilliant scene with Beard at a press conference where he says something about women that makes a feminist mad, and all hell breaks loose. If nothing else, this is hilarious.
So yes, Michael Beard is another excellent McEwan creation, though he does occasionally tend towards overlapping some past experiences, if you’ve read McEwan before. The things that make Solar different are the things everyone was most looking forward to before publication, and alas, I’m not sure the novel has lived up to it. As with many novels and fictions about science, McEwan has clearly done a lot of research into voltaic energy, climate change, and the politics of what is going on. What he hasn’t done, though, like so many other authors, is integrated this into a real world example. It’s like he’s done all this research, is eager to show it off, so he often just dumps this science into character’s mouths, with little or no impact on the plot. Climate change politics and science are a background for this novel, so for it to be truly called such is something of a misnomer.
More than anything, it’s another way for McEwan to highlight the problems baby boomer white males are now facing in English society. Beard is frustratingly stupid a lot of the time, and as we hurtle towards the ending on the novel, where his past sins come back to bite him in the arse, there’s a sense that they have definitely had their rime in the sun. It’s ironic that this sin (spoiler alert) is his murdering a young man who has actual passion for climate change, and for doing something about it. Whether this was an intentional image or not, there’s something quite ironic in the fact that an old scientist who cares only about money and sex is the one killing off young idealists all in the name of self preservation. Whether this was intentional or not, it simply goes to prove the large generation gap that exists in current climate change thinking, both in the scientific community, and society at large. In many ways, though, this is made up for in the ending, where Beard definitely gets what’s coming to him, and more than ever, we see him for the pathetic old man he truly is.
This isn’t a bad novel, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s great. The mesh between science and fiction doesn’t work well, and McEwan is covering a lot of ground he’s already covered in his earlier works. In fact, I would almost go as far as to say that he covers old white males as a theme better in Amsterdam – this and Solar are similar, but I think he did it better twelve years ago.
Also, on a completely unrelated note, this is my 100th review. Woot!