The British writer, Ian McEwan, is an acknowledged master of the novel form. In Solar, as in his earlier Saturday, a scientist is the central character in a drama that involves his knowledge and professional expertise only tangentially. I say this with some trepidation because I’m sure some readers will want to argue with it along several different lines. In Saturday, Henry Perowne is a practicing neurosurgeon, not a medical scientist, whereas in Solar, Michael Beard is a Nobel laureate physicist, who applies his expertise to the development of a far superior solar energy technology. What makes both novels seem to fit the fiction about science category so well is McEwan’s compulsive and adroit use of technical detail to give the story substance and believability. While the rich scientific content of the prose may impress many readers, a careful examination of the characters and plots of both novels suggests to me that the power of both books derives from human dramas that only accidentally play out in the details of brain surgery or applied research in photochemistry.
Beard’s drama involves his insatiable appetites for sexual partners, alcohol and high-calorie food. His Nobel-winning work is far in the past, a youthful burst of theoretical insight that bestowed on him a “…head sprinkled with Stockholm’s magic dust.” Everything he has done subsequently can be traced back to that brilliant moment. It’s clear early in the book that Beard is coasting as a scientist. Solar tells the story of the disasters that result from Beard’s appetites. Even the scientific dishonesty that leads to the collapse of his role in developing a new solar technology stems from a confrontation he has with his fifth wife’s lover, who happens to be a post-doc in the government laboratory Beard once lent his Stockholm dust to.
Much of Solar is taken up with Beard’s failing fifth marriage, his inveterate womanizing, compulsive drinking, and constant consumption of unhealthy food. McEwan is remarkably skilled at describing one repulsive episode after another in such a way that the reader both laughs at and sympathizes with this unlikable character. Indeed, there are moments when the reader foresees with dread what is coming and cringes as Beard digs himself deeper and deeper into still another disaster. One can only sympathize with the characters around him, who will be pulled into tragic misfortunes not of their making. The stunning part of reading Solar is one’s sympathy for person causing all this mayhem.
While Solar deserves classification as a lab lit novel, it fails my definition as fiction about science or hardcore lab lit. Very little of the storyline depends on the outcome of Beard’s research. His story and his fate flow entirely from his character flaws and his willingness to make shamelessly speculative, off-the-cuff remarks to the media and even to his colleagues. I think a good case can be made that the superb technical details in the book are nothing more than a realistic setting for the action of the novel. Although it’s praiseworthy that McEwan has gone to the trouble of getting these right, the science in Solar is only a setting for a riveting story about a fascinating character to unfold. I read it with great pleasure and admiration for the author’s writing. I was happy to see the science presented realistically. But I didn’t find out much about how real physicists view their work.