Ian McEwan’s new novel is a work of “lab lit” genre fiction. It lacks the punch of Atonement or the political ambition of Saturday—but is more fun than eitherby Philip Ball / March 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
Solar by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)
Literary reputation can be a violent field. After Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday—which several reviewers considered (unfairly) to be an insufferably smug depiction of Blair’s Britain in the approach to the invasion of Iraq—it looked as though a place was being prepared for him alongside Martin Amis on the pillory. Britain’s two most celebrated novelists, the story went, were getting above themselves, pronouncing on the state of the nation from what seemed an increasingly conservative position. And so it was time to take them down a peg or two.
Amis now seems split between poles. In a counter-backlash, some have taken to defending his writing, while others have stepped up the demonisation, exemplified by Anna Ford’s portrait of Amis in the Guardian letters pages as a wicked godfather. Similarly, his latest novel The Pregnant Widow (Jonathan Cape, 2010) has been both praised as a return to form and derided as a farrago of caricature and solipsism. But McEwan’s new book, Solar, may serve to distance him from such controversies and reinvest him with the humble status of a storyteller. For the book is a modest affair—an entertainment, dare one even say a romp—and is essentially a work of genre fiction: lab lit.
This genre, a second cousin of the campus novel, draws its plots from the exploits of scientists and the scientific community, and includes such titles as Allegra Goodman’s Intuition (2009) and Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table (1997). McEwan has never inhabited it so thoroughly before, but his interest in science is well established. The protagonist of his 1997 novel Enduring Love is a science journalist, while the plot of Saturday hinges on the technical expertise of its central character, the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. McEwan has spoken publicly about the uses of science in fiction, and has written passionately about the need to tackle climate change.
This is where Solar comes in. When McEwan mentioned at the Hay festival in 2008 that his next book had a “climate change” theme, people anticipated some eco-fable set in the melting Arctic. He quickly denied any intention to proselytise; climate change would “just be the background hum of the book.”
So it is. Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate physicist resting on the laurels of his seminal work in quantum theory decades ago, is balding, overweight, addictively philandering, and coming to the…