Review: Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’ is not very illuminating

Our guest reviewer is John Atcheson, who has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks.  He is working on his own novel about climate change.

Ian McEwan writes sentences that are works of art.  They glisten as if they were laid down in gold leaf with a silvered quill.

And sometimes he writes great novels as well.

But not this time. Solar still sports some to the best writing in the English language, and from almost anyone else, it would have to be considered a success, but it may signal an emerging weakness in McEwan’s oeuvre.

Two books ago, in Atonement, McEwan told a wonderful tale about how a moment of betrayal by a young girl rippled through time to affect each of the main characters in profound ways.  An intriguing plot with a stunning twist, fascinating characters, well wrought by a writer at the peak of his powers.

In his next work, Saturday, he took on terrorism and, though the story was superbly told, his thesis was on obvious display, and the book at times seemed artificial and over-built, as if the scaffolding were still surrounding the structure of an otherwise beautiful building.

Solar doubles down on Satruday’s shortcomings.  The plot seems slightly contrived, and he moves the characters about like chess pieces – with great precision, but little passion.

It’s not that he failed in his conceit:  Solar is a carefully constructed novel, successfully executed.  But that’s just it — as with Saturday, McEwan has put his characters in a tightly constrained box to serve his greater purpose, and it feels a tad artificial.

Take his protagonist, Michael Beard — an overweight, sybaritic, narcissistic Nobel Prize winning physicist, well past his prime, whose main interest seems to be getting married and having affairs. He’s the Ignatius Reilly of climate science, though not as principled.

For example, Beard steals a technology from one of his post-doc employees who dies in his presence (after tripping on a polar bear rug — get it?  Revenge of the climate-endangered species. You can almost feel McEwan poking us in our collective ribs and winking) then tries to frame the death on his fifth wife’s former lover.  Oh, and the post-doc has been having an affair with his wife, too.

Sound sordid?  It is. Worse, Beard is really the only one we spend any time with. Misanthropic protagonists are difficult to pull off — and in Beard we have an almost one-dimensional caricature — but to leave the reader stranded with him for the entire novel is too much, even for someone of McEwan’s skill.  Bottom line: it’s difficult to make a symbol and a three dimensional character with depth at the same time, and McEwan opted — or ended up with — the symbol.

Although he claims it was not his intent, McEwan has written a dark comedy, and Beard is obviously some sort of metaphor for our self-indulgent society. Perhaps he’s asking, will our base nature win out, or our brilliance?  The limbic system or the frontal cortex?

He does generate laughs — as when Beard nearly freezes his penis off on a trip to the Arctic. Philanderer nearly loses his penis in the Arctic — get it? The very piece of geography where our own excesses will strike us first (wink, wink — elbow in the side).

To his credit, McEwan manages to write some compelling pages about climate change and renewable energy without seeming pedantic.  Early on in the novel, when Beard wonders aloud whether we can really do without coal and oil, the ill fated post-doc says, “We need a different fuel or we fail, we sink.”  Beard then says absently, “So more nuclear power.” The answer the post-doc gives is as eloquent a plea for solar power as I’ve ever heard.  Here’s a few of the highlights:

You know what I always think, Professor Beard? If an alien arrived on Earth and saw all this sunlight, he’d be amazed to hear that we think we’ve got an energy problem.”¦ God’s greatest gift to us is surely this, that a photon striking a semiconductor releases an electron.

He then goes on to lay out an effective metaphor about a thirsty man in a rainstorm. And McEwan has created just the kind of character needed to deliver this monologue — a na¯ve, but sincere scientist who has already shown his scientific chops.  But the pawn, having fulfilled his duty is then sacrificed.  All very “¦ precise.

Ah, but this brings us to one of the novel’s most serious shortcomings, the solutions McEwan saddles poor Dr. Beard with — a couple of gee-whiz technologies involving  mimicry of photosynthetic systems using nanotechnology and solar energy to generate hydrogen to power fuel cells and to manufacture an all-purpose liquid fuel. Shades of President Bush and the breakthrough bunch.  Much has been written about McEwan’s ability to write about science with the assurance of an insider. And he handles the science behind his solar technologies with aplomb.  But to those who know energy, his choice of such esoteric technologies to save the world undercuts any credibility his familiarity and language might offer.

Yes, folks are working on such technologies, but as anyone who knows energy policy could tell you, we’ve got most of what we need on hand, and no time to wait for breakthroughs in any case. Yet midway through the book, McEwan endows Professor Beard with one of the most persuasive speeches ever offered for investing money and faith in brand new technologies and unwittingly feeds the breakthrough bunch’s and the wait-and-see crowd’s false narrative, undercutting much of the good work he’s done elsewhere.

McEwan does do a good job of revealing humanity’s hypocrisy, and he raises some fundamental questions about human nature and our relationship to the planet, albeit it in a highly stilted and structured way. Perhaps he would have been better off writing an essay.  Other masters of fiction have done this quite well — Joan Didion crafted some of the best essays since Montague invented the form in her collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

At any rate, one wishes he would quit trying to translate the themes of our times into stories.  When he deals with momentous issues, like climate change or terrorism, he seems weighed down by their import and less concerned with the dictates of crafting a great novel.  When he deals with everyday people and events, he finds universal truths and he renders them with startling clarity and beauty in stories that resonate.

If you’re a writer, or an aficionado of the English language, any book by McEwan is pretty close to a must-read, if only to enjoy his narrative skills. And Solar is certainly a good novel.  But it’s by no means a great novel.

If you are concerned about climate change, it’s hard not to think that Solar adds as much confusion as it does illumination to solving the issue of our time.

— John Atcheson

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2 Responses to Review: Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’ is not very illuminating

  1. paulm says:

    I think youve missed his point of the novel.

  2. john atcheson says:


    After reading your comment I checked in with some other reviews — The Observer, the NYT, the Washington Post among others — and there seemed to be pretty universal agreement among all of them.

    I suppose we could have all missed McKewan’s point, but it seems unlikely.