Book Club Review – Solar by Ian McEwan
Many thanks to everyone who braved the weather on Tuesday night (29th Jan) to come along to the first ever Greener Kirkcaldy Book Club. On the table to discuss was Ian McEwan’s Solar – a very funny book that happens to be about climate change.
Professor Michael Beard, a Nobel Laureate for physics, eats too much, drinks too much, has issues with fidelity and seems to be stuck in a rut. He doesn’t seem to be very interested in climate change, despite heading a renewable technologies research facility, until a freak accident throws him the chance to reinvigorate his career by developing a new type of solar panel. Whilst his professional life is taking a turn for the better, his own excesses and slovenliness leave his private life in chaos.
The whole group was in agreement that Michael Beard wasn’t a character to be admired – he was lazy, unfaithful, greedy, deceitful, shallow and selfish. Whilst some found him so odorous they didn’t want to finish the book, others relished in his disastrous escapades, and some even felt some sympathy for him. He is a man who starts off stuck in rut, trading on his reputation, and whilst we glimpse a desire to turn his life around at one point, only when fate hands him the findings of a young physicist who works for him, does he reinvigorate his professional life, seizing glory (and patents) for himself. In the rest of his life he seems powerless to make any changes – he continues to eat too much, drink too much and pile on the weight. We discussed whether this self-destructive behaviour was a metaphor for humans and the planet.
Some of the scenes are very funny – I certainly laughed out loud on several occasions, and we had fun reminding each other of these stories. The group was divided about the book in general – half thought it a riot, enjoying reading about this disaster of a man and others just found him sad and unlikeable, wondering why they were reading about such an unpleasant person. Perhaps if Michael Beard had bettered himself and resolved some of these issues he had then it would have been more appealing. This lack of resolution and sense of calamity did mean that the book left you with little hope; despairing of humanity and despairing at the chances of saving the planet. Several scenes in the book bring out a conflict between science and technology and the arts and humanities, and which would be more useful in tackling climate change. It was felt that Ian McEwan’s hopes lay squarely on the science, both in his dim view of humanity expressed in his characters and the (gently) mocking tone with which he treats the artists and social scientists in the novel.
We found the science believeable and accessible, nicely interspersed with plot. Interestingly quite a bit of the science mentioned in the book isn’t just fiction – there are people working on artificial photosynthesis, creating petrol from air and trying to make a quick buck on carbon credits by dumping iron filings in the sea!|