Ian McEwan’s Solar is a climate change novel in the same way that his 2005 effort Saturday is an Iraq war novel — which is to say, it both is and it isn’t. At their core, these books are concerned less with their apparent subjects than with capturing a particular sort of post-millennial malaise — the experience of living a privileged life within a gilded age that seems fated for extinction. The seeming apocalypses beyond the horizon are more than mere vehicles for this exploration, but not much more.
Solar’s protagonist, John Beard, a Nobel laureate in physics, functions as a dark reflection of Saturday’s neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. Both are men of science who voice skepticism toward literature, and both are consumed with thoughts of global events from which they can’t escape.
But whereas Perowne is happily married (too happily for some critics’ tastes), Beard is a serial philanderer: four times divorced, and well at work on number five. While Perowne is an admirable humanist who altruistically employs his scientific knowledge, Beard is decades removed from the work that earned him renown, and he enjoys his lingering fame in a grotesquely indulgent manner that rivals Martin Amis’s John Self. Though dogmatic hawks and doves often missed the point, McEwan intended his readers to sympathize with, or at the very least understand, Perowne’s mixed feelings toward the impending Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Beard’s internal reactions to external events are hardly so generously rendered.
As the novel opens in 2000, Beard grows weary of the constant television chatter over the protracted American presidential election: “It could make no significant difference to the world at large… if Bush rather than Gore, Tweedledum rather than Tweedledee, was president for the first four or eight years of the twenty-first century.” This prediction is on its face ridiculous, and it’s particularly absurd that a former oilman and once-and-future environmentalist vying to become the most powerful person in the world should seem irrelevant to a scientist who, over the course of the novel, is charged with ensuring the survival of humanity in the face of climatological catastrophe. Of course, at the time Beard would hardly have been alone in harbouring these sentiments. Hindsight is what ripens this folly into farce, and what wonderful farce Solar has to offer.
Beard is himself a fitting metaphor for the planet he selfishly endeavours to save, and an aptly depressing synecdoche for the species that’s condemned it to its sorry state. At once bloated and sickly, short-sighted and obtuse, he’s an expertly cast comic caricature, yet he lacks the depth of McEwan’s most convincing creations. Still, when placed in circumstances like an Arctic expedition for artists and scientists (based on the experience that inspired McEwan to write the novel), Beard offers a hilarious window into the pettiness of human nature even when faced with events of world-historical significance. Such satirical set-pieces, though largely rendered in McEwan’s typically measured elegance, are where the parallels to Saturday break down; the earlier novel is far more directly earnest. Solar’s tone is more reminiscent of McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novella Amsterdam, which pits two former lovers of a deceased woman in a life-and-death struggle. Conspicuous in their absence, perhaps, are comparisons to his greatest novel, Atonement. But only a rarefied class of contemporary fiction earns such accolades, and to complain that Solar is eclipsed by McEwan’s earlier genius would be akin to Beard lamenting that he’s no Einstein. In the absence of perfection, a small measure of greatness works just fine.