Worth A Read – Ian McEwan’s “Solar”

In a previous post I mentioned that I was excited by the upcoming publication of a novel by Ian McEwan that was inspired by the issues of climate change.  Well, the book has arrived.  I have just finished reading it on my new-ish Kindle (no paper to waste, no shipping charges, lower prices for the books, no outrageous AT&T wireless charges as for the iPad, etc, etc).

The book is worth a read – with some qualifications.

"Solar" - Ian McEwan's new book inspired by climate change

"Solar" - Ian McEwan's new book inspired by climate change

Some parts of the book show McEwan at his best. The development of the selfish, self-centred, ‘human’ character of the main protagonist, Nobel Prize winning physicist Michael Beard, is vintage McEwan. In this book climate change issues form the backdrop for the novel but they are not front and center in the novel. As many of McEwan’s novels, this is a novel about the human condition – not a novel about climate change. Yet, climate change is the thread that runs through the novel – in some places easily and elegantly, in others seeming more like an add-on. Speeches and discussions on the intricacies of climate change and possible solutions sometimes seem pasted on to the main plot, interrupting rather than enhancing the flow of the book.

McEwan has clearly done his research – an in some depth. But it is not clear to me why he has to submit his readers to the tedium of the intricate detail of particle physics. He seems to have forgotten his own advice when saying that part of the issue with trying to communicate climate change issues is that all the jargon puts people off. In an interview prior to publication, he stated: “Even writing sentences about splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, already I know that about half the readers [will] see the names of those gases and their minds white out. Just seeing the word hydrogen they panic”.  You can imagine how my eyes and mind whited out when I came across this passage – and many more like it:

“…made elliptical references to BLG or some overwrought arcana in M-theory or Nambu-Lie 3-algebra as if it were not a change of subject.”

Still, given that, the book shows some vintage McEwan skills with the thoroughly unpleasant character of Michael Beard creates humor out of his very baseness. Apart from increasing the profile of climate change and, maybe, getting some to think about it further, the book also contains some points that should cause environmental and climate change enthusiasts to pause for reflection.

For those who have adopted the moral high ground and think of themselves as superior do-gooders, here is some advice worth taking when thinking about solutions:

“The matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilization, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and cooperation, the satisfaction of profit.”

The Michael Beard character also raises another question: has the whole environmental movement now become an industry and a vested interest just like any other? Have the motivations of the days of Rachel Carson largely disappeared and are those in the environmental community now doing jobs just like the rest of us and primarily motivated by advancement of their own careers?  There would be nothing wrong in that, but it does suggest a significant change in the environmental community, how it behaves and how it hopes to achieve its aims.

At the end of this novel, the author leaves us hanging between a belief in climate change as a human problem with possible solutions and seeing the whole issue as simply another bandwagon on which have jumped a new generation of scientists and entrepreneurs. That ambiguity may be a true reflection of today’s state of the public’s acceptance of climate science.


  1. It should comfort you then, that he, or the publisher, bungled the Dirac Equation on Page 42. A more pertinent comment on your review, though: if people don’t like the intricacies of particle physics, then why do Steven Hawking and Brian Greene do so well? And isn’t it a value-add when you actually learn something from a novel? (to be sure, throwing out jargon like the sentence you quote isn’t going to teach anyone anything – no value there, but what would you say if he had provided some level of instruction?)
    A related point is that lit-fiction books like Solar assume a reasonably well educated readership. (He used the word “repointed” on page one. I truly thought it was a typo. After looking it up in the OED… I think it was typo, albeit a fortunate one.) Anyway, the point is that a well educated readership clearly assumes a freshmen level comfort with history, philosophy, etc so shouldn’t it also assume a hand waving knowledge of freshman-level mathematics and science?

  2. Ransom, thank you for this comment. I agree that Stephen Hawking’s and others’ books have tremendous popularity – and that’s what I buy when I want to learn some physics in an accessible way. I would not buy a McEwan novel. To my mind, the inclusion of technical information of this sort in a novel reaches a point beyond which it ceases to add to the flow and starts to come across as the author earnestly showing us that he’s done his homework. Both in “Solar” and in “Saturday” McEwan, in my opinion, goes well beyond this point. To me, McEwan’s skills come across best in his simple but striking novels such as “On Chesil Beach”, “In The Company of Strangers”, “Atonement” and others. His ability to get to the heart of human motivation in these works is truly remarkable. This is a much rarer talent and, to me, a more valuable part of his writing than him learning and then regurgitating a bunch of scientific technicalities.

  3. Pingback: Video: Ian McEwan talks about Solar « The Third Ray

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