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 end of his fifth marriage. Like many Nobel winners he has long ceased any productive science and is now riding the superficial circuit of plenary lectures, honorary degrees, royal commissions and advisory boards. Becoming the figurehead of the National Centre for Renewable Energy, marooned near Reading, seemed a good idea at the time, but the centre’s research has become mired in Beard’s ill-advised notion of making a wind turbine. Beard is privately indifferent to the global warming threat, but when a chance arrives to give his career fresh lustre with a new kind of solar power, he grasps it greedily.
With Beard running more on bluster and past glory than on scientific insight, and with his domestic life on auto-destruct, we know it will all end badly. The question is simply how long Beard can stay ahead of the game. And, as the climate change debate moves from the denialism of the George W Bush years to Barack Obama and Copenhagen, he is increasingly a desperate, steadily inflating cork borne on the tide.
As ever, McEwan has done his homework. Mercifully, too, he knows much more than Jonathan Lethem about how physicists think and work. And he is more successful in concealing his research than he was with the neuroscience shoehorned into Saturday. But not entirely: Beard’s speech to a group of climate-sceptic corporate leaders reads more like a lecture than a description of one: “Fifty years ago we were putting thirteen billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That figure has almost doubled.” And when Beard debunks his business partner’s doubts about global warming after the cool years of the late noughties, he gets full marks for science but risks becoming his author’s mouthpiece. “The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change” is not the kind of thing anyone says to their friend.
The solution to the energy crisis on offer here is a process called “artificial photosynthesis,” which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using photocatalysis. It is entirely respectable scientifically, albeit hardly the revolutionary breakthrough it is made out to be. Much the same idea was used by Stephen Poliakoff in his 1996 lab-lit play Blinded By the Sun. McEwan’s clever trick in Solar is to involve quantum-mechanical effects (based on Beard’s Nobel-winning theory) to improve the efficiency. It’s a detail that left the nerd in me wondering if McEwan was aware of recent theories invoking such effects in real photosynthesis. I’m not sure whether to be more impressed if he is or if he isn’t.
McEwan nods toward recent episodes in which science has collided with the world outside the lab. Beard’s off-the-cuff remarks about women in science replay the debacle that engulfed former Harvard president Lawrence Summers in 2005, and Beard stands in for Steven Pinker in an ensuing debate on gender differences (although Pinker’s opponent Elizabeth Spelke did a far better demolition job than does Beard’s).
He also makes wry use of personal experience. At the 2008 Hay festival, McEwan read a draft of the episode in which Beard eats the crisps of a fellow traveller on a train, thinking they are his own and suppressing his fury when the young man ironically helps himself. Someone in the audience pointed out that a similar case of false accusation of an innocent stranger appeared in Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. Some newspapers then made a weak jibe at McEwan’s “plagiarism.” Now, in Solar, when Beard recounts the tale in a speech, a tiresome lecturer in “urban studies and folklore” accuses him of appropriating a well-known urban myth, making Beard feel that his life has been rendered inauthentic. There’s even an allusion to Douglas Adams inserted into the story.
One of the incidental pleasures of reading Solar for a science watcher is identifying the academics from whom Beard has been assembled—I counted at least five. Beard is a difficult character to place centre-stage. He is not only selfish, unfaithful and vain, but also physically repulsive: McEwan is particularly good at evoking queasiness at his creation’s gluttony and bodily decrepitude. McEwan has said, however, that he wanted to leave Beard just enough possibility of goodness to engender some sympathy, and he succeeds by a whisker. When the final collapse of Beard’s crumbling schemes arrives (you can see it coming all along), there is room for compassion, even dismay.
Solar is, then, a satisfying and scientifically literate slice of genre literature, marred only slightly by McEwan’s curious addiction to the kind of implausible plot hinge that marred Enduring Love, Atonement and, most seriously, Saturday. Come the event that places opportunity in Beard’s hands, all the strings and signposts are glaringly evident—I think I even murmured to myself, “No, not the corner of the coffee table.” And, like the thug Baxter in Saturday, Beard’s wife’s uncouth former lover Tarpin ends up doing things that just don’t ring true—a failure not of “character motivation” (McEwan is too good a writer to belabour that old chestnut) but of sheer plausibility.
In the end, this is McEwan-lite: a confection of contemporary preoccupations that, while lacking the emotional punch of Atonement, the political ambition of Saturday or the honed delicacy of On Chesil Beach. But it is also more fun than any of them.
And if it dissuades us from turning McEwan, like Amis, into a cultural icon to be venerated or toppled, so much the better for him and for us.