Thursday, March 25, 2010

Solar eclipse

This is more or less how my review of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar in Prospect started out (the final paras got a little garbled in the edit). I’m amused to see that my suggestion here that his modest intentions might head off extreme reactions has been proved wrong. Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph calls the book McEwan’s best yet, and thinks it should win the Booker (no way). And some found the comic elements ‘extremely funny’. Others think it is a stinker: one reviewer calls it ‘an odd, desultory production, by turns pompous and feebly comic’, and Leo Robson in the New Statesman says McEwan has lost his ear and that ‘With Solar, McEwan has finally committed the folly that we might not have expected from him.’ Really, they are all getting too worked up. Although I wouldn’t go as far as the dismissive comment in the Economist that this is ‘A novel to chuckle over, and chuck away’, it is simply a fairly light, intelligent piece of entertainment. Not, I imagine, that McEwan will be too bothered about any of this.


After 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 Ian McEwan alongside Martin Amis on the pillory. Our 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.

Amis seems now to be in some curious quantum superposition of states, defended in a backlash to the backlash while demonized as the misogynistic wicked godfather. His latest novel The Pregnant Widow has been both praised as a return to form and derided as a farrago of caricature and solipsism. But Solar may extricate McEwan from such controversies and reinvest him with the humble status of a storyteller. For the book is a modest entertainment, dare one even say a romp, and 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 and Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table.

McEwan’s interest in science is well established. The protagonist of Enduring Love is a science journalist, and the plot of Saturday hinged on the technical expertise of its central character, the neuroscientist Henry Perowne. McEwan has spoken about the uses of science in fiction, and has written passionately about the need to tackle climate change.

And that 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 proselytize; 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 physics 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 autodestruct, we know it will all end badly. The question is simply how long Beard can stay ahead of the game. As the climate-change debate moves from the denialism of the Bush years to Obama and Copenhagen, he is increasingly a desperate, steadily inflating cork borne on the tide.

As ever, McEwan has done his homework. Mercifully, he knows much more than 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 always. 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.

In case you care, the solution to the energy crisis on offer here – the process of ‘artificial photosynthesis’ to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using photocatalysis – 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 lablit play Blinded By the Sun; McEwan’s clever trick here is to involve quantum-mechanical effects (based on Beard’s Nobel-winning theory) to improve the efficiency, which 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 Larry Sumner 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. When he read at Hay 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 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 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some newspapers made a weak jibe at plagiarism. When Beard recounts the tale in a speech, a 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 – and the allusion to Douglas Adams is now inserted in the story.

One of the pleasures for a science watcher is identifying the academics from whom Beard has been assembled – I counted at least five. He is a difficult character to place centre-stage, not just selfish, unfaithful and vain but also physically repulsive – McEwan is particularly good at evoking queasiness at Beard’s gluttony and bodily decrepitude. But he has said 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 compromised 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, is 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.


Anonymous said...
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John Whitfield said...

I rather enjoyed the Lethem book. It seemed more concerned with poking fun at lit-theory types than with how physicists think. I'd put it at the junction of rom-com/scifi, rather than lablit.

Motherless Brooklyn is also good.

(p.s. that first comment looks like spam-flattery to me.)

Philip Ball said...

Hi John,
I thought there were things to enjoy in the Lethem. But I also thought the lit-theory satire was a bit heavy-handed, what with the physicist running out to vomit and all. And Lethem seemed to think that a physicist would casually attribute some kind of sentience to this 'singularity', as though it was almost uncontentious to do so. But I should read more of his stuff - I do hear good things about it.

Philip Ball said...

PS Yeah, that spam stuff is a pain. I should kick it off.