Review of Solar, by Ian McEwan

April 2, 2010

My brother-in-law suggested I take a look at Solar, because its central character, a pompous physicist, without any real interest in solar power, jumps on the climate change bandwagon, and by stealing a young graduate’s brilliant idea, launches himself as the saviour of the planet.

The central character, Michael Beard, whose point of view the reader follows at all times, is an arrogant, selfish fraud, who thinks it is perfectly alright to have multiple affairs but when one of his many wives does the same, Beard, ultimately, frames her lover for murder. He then proceeds to steal the dead man’s ideas on solar power and claims them as his own. What a deliciously despicable character! Two things kept me glued to the book: firstly, the comedy, and secondly, the desire to see this wretch get his come-uppance.

I have to admit to feeling somewhat deflated after reading it, in spite of McEwan’s incredible writing skills and brilliant touches of comedy, such as the zipper scene in the Arctic. The inventors and scientists, who are developing renewable energy options, including Beard, seem half-hearted at best, corrupt and chaotic. The message of the book seems to be that pure greed will save the planet from global warming, with investors seeing the dollar signs associated with renewables. It says we can’t expect people to lessen their rapacious desire to consume, so brilliantly personified in the gluttonous Beard himself. The idealists, so wonderfully depicted as the artists in the Arctic, who believe they can persuade people to do the right thing, are just wasting everyone’s time. Have a read of these wonderfully sarcastic lines, describing Beard’s invitation to spend time in the Arctic:

“The party would comprise twenty artists and scientists concerned with climate change, and conveniently, just ten miles away, was a dramatically retreating glacier…An Italian chef ‘of international renown’ would be in attendance, and predatory polar bears would be shot if necessary by a guide with a high-calibre rifle…and the foundation would bear all his expenses, while the guilty discharge of carbon dioxide from twenty return flights and snowmobile rides…would be offset by planting three thousand trees in Venezuela as soon as a site could be identified and local officials bribed.”

There is no doubt that McEwan’s craftsmanship is breath-taking but I wondered if this story was the best way to convey the author’s concerns about the planet’s lack of action over climate change? Not one of the character’s involved in renewables projects appears to genuinely believe in what they were doing or even that it is necessary. I worried that readers might leave the story distrustful of those in the renewables industry, even to the point of concluding that the whole global warming argument was just a scam. But perhaps I am one of the naïve idealists Beard mocks in the story:

“Beard would not have believed it possible that he would be in a room drinking with so many seized by the same particular assumption, that it was art…that would lift climate change as a subject, gild it, palpate it, reveal all the horror and lost beauty and awesome threat, and inspire the public to take thought, take action, or demand it of others.”

Should I be worried that this extract sums up how I feel about the power of fiction, which I think can spark debate, and bring to readers’ attention contentious issues in a non-confrontational way? In my second novel, Thirst, to be released in 2011, the central character, though somewhat flawed and initially apathetic, is a glaciologist who has studied the science and knows the impact of global warming will be serious, and is ultimately forced to try to prevent a climate change disaster from occurring in Antarctica. This novel is first and foremost a story to entertain and enthrall. But it would be exciting if it sparked some debate at reading groups, at the pub, at work, with friends and family. Do you think novels can trigger discussions about hot button topics?

If you would like to read The Guardian’s review of Solar please follow this link:


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