By Ian McEwan
In 2000, when the decade-and-continents-spanning Solar opens, physicist Michael Beard is coasting professionally on his Nobel laurels as his fifth marriage falls apart. In his topsy-turvy life, the science comes easy—everything else is hard! Like CO2 in the atmosphere, Solar imprisons readers in the mind of this revolting narrator, one in a long line of McEwan jerks. He's a glutton. A philanderer. A perjurer. An evidence-planter. He steals colleagues' work. He skims Scientific American looking for his name. He only falls into climatology because it's the issue du jour, develops revolutionary solar technology because there's money in it; saving the world only factors in as far as it'll garner him glory. (He's selfish.)
McEwan builds a few superb set pieces throughout, including a scene of pseudo-castrative comeuppance in Antarctica. But stylistically, he's out of control: he aspires to sentences of Updikian elegance that topple into verbosity. If he catches an adjective, he doesn't kill it—he encourages it to reproduce ("down the smog-shrouded cobbled alleyways of filthy cities and in pestilential thatched villages"). He double underlines his metaphors, he shows and then tells. He dubs a piece of poo a "chocolate arabesque."
The pretension stops at the book's ostensible purpose. Despite pages-long lectures on global warming, McEwan self-effacingly admits his novel won't solve the climate crisis. Solar frequently rags on the arts; at one point, it compares their efficacy in effecting large-scale change to prayer's. What McEwan can and does do is demonstrate how bureaucracy and vanity conspire to retard progress. And he teases out a verity of human nature through contrast to climate change: while Mother Nature might be ever adapting to external stimuli, the pettiness of human behavior is a constant, as predictable as the sunrise. As horrible as Michael Beard might be, by novel's end he seems horribly familiar. Also horrible is the realization that it's men as bad or worse than we on whom the perpetuation of humanity hinges.