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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture Posted by Joshua Chaplinsky


"Solar" by Ian McEwan
Joshua Chaplinsky
An aging Nobel prizewinner tries to solve the world's energy crisis with the sun that shines out of his ass.

I don't know about everyone else, but I had Ian McEwan's Atonement pegged as a lady book from a mile away. I'd never read the novel, but I'd seen the movie trailer and it had manipulative tearjerker written all over it. Hence- lady book. Whether I was right or wrong, this impression was the reason I initially had little interest in Solar. But then I read a post on IO9 calling it one of the year's best science fiction novels and I became intrigued. I love me a good, literary sci-fi novel, so I set about acquiring a copy.

Turns out, Solar isn't much of a science fiction novel at all. It is a book with science at its core, but the story is grounded firmly in reality. This reality is inhabited by Michael Beard, an aging Nobel prizewinner clinging to the faded glory of his one big breakthrough. He is a self-centered cheat whose career is kick-started by the death of a sycophantic colleague who happens to be his wife's lover. Based on the dead man's research (which in turn is based on Beard's own prize-winning breakthrough) Beard develops a method of artificial photosynthesis to produce clean, inexpensive energy.

I'm no physicist, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the technical mumbo-jumbo in Solar, but the science on display makes for a fascinating read. It's obvious McEwan put in a decent amount of research, regardless of the plausibility of Beard's Earth-saving endeavors. If this type of erudition puts you to sleep, never fear, McEwan strikes the perfect balance between science and the protagonist's unfortunate personal exploits. Solar is not a plot heavy affair, but there are key moments dispersed throughout this character study that guide the story forward. The book is split up into three sections, each one signifying a time cut, as we follow Beard along this path towards his ultimate triumph and/or demise.

Beard is an entirely egocentric character. Gluttony, womanizing, pride- all contributing factors to what he, in his delusion, would describe as joie de vivre. He veers sharply into the realm of unlikability, like a crazed passenger wrenching the steering wheel from your grasp, yet it doesn't inspire hate. Maybe Beard's shortcomings are glossed over by the humor, or maybe he is pathetic to the point of pity. Either way, it's his flaws that make him interesting.

Based on some of the reviews, longtime McEwan fans seem to be dissatisfied with this novel. Having never read anything else by him, it's all new and exciting to me. Reasons detractors claim McEwan's earlier work to be superior are the reasons I've avoided it. Solar, on the other hand, is being billed as a satire, and there were multiple instances of my laughter attracting curious glances on the subway to back that up. It lampoons scientists, satirizes academics, and skewers politicians. Everyone gets a taste, even the environmentalists. McEwan knows, you can't spell "environmental" without "mental", and reserves a few choice jabs for ineffectual do-gooders who are all talk and no action. Despite all this, I can't help but feel that Solar has a vague pro-ecology agenda for those who want to find one.

This wasn't the stuffy, British novel I was expecting from McEwan. Like Beard, McEwan embraces the American people, reveling  in the differences between ways of life on respective sides of the pond. As with everything else, there is a satirical element, but there is also an undercurrent of affection. There is a gusto to the characters as well as the writing, dispelling any lingering fear of the ghosts of Masterpiece Theater. My desire to delve into McEwan's back-catalog is still minimal, but I now have a proper impression of the man and his talents. Because he is a talented writer, and the next time he chooses a subject that interests me, or tricks me into reading one of his books, I'm sure I will enjoy the experience.