Ian McEwan's Solar.

Reading between the lines.
March 29 2010 7:13 AM

The Slippery Scientist

Ian McEwan on the gulf between goodness and intelligence.

Solar by Ian McEwan.

Five years ago, Ian McEwan published Saturday, a novel in which a man of science is made to symbolize everything that is noble and worth defending about our civilization. Henry Perowne, the main character, is not only a brilliant neurosurgeon but a doting husband and father and a man of honor. In the novel's climactic scene—a classic example of McEwan's manipulative horror—he must defend his home and family against a criminal who is suffering from a degenerative brain disease. It is a fable of reason against unreason, written at a time when London was still reeling from an attack by religious fanatics, and McEwan allows his hero to triumph, with strength but also with compassion. (Having subdued the intruder, Perowne goes to the hospital to perform a life-saving operation on him.) If the West can produce a man like Henry Perowne, McEwan seems to say, there is hope for us yet.

What are we to make, then, of a civilization that can produce Michael Beard, the scientist at the center of McEwan's new novel, Solar? Beard is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who has devoted his middle age to solving the climate change crisis by inventing a new form of artificial photosynthesis—in short, a hero for our times. He is also, as McEwan delights in showing us, a total bastard: a liar, adulterer, thief, bad citizen, bad father, and to top things off, a compulsive eater of salt-and-vinegar potato chips:

"The trick," he explains, "was to set the fragment on the centre of the tongue and, after a moment's spreading sensation, push the potato up hard to shatter against the roof of the mouth. His theory was that the rigid irregular surface caused tiny abrasions in the soft flesh into which salt and chemicals poured, creating a mild and distinctive pleasure-pain."

Advertisement

This is a very scientific way to eat chips (or crisps), and a very McEwan-like way to write about it. Martin Amis' antiheroes are as devoted to junk food, and sex and alcohol, as Beard. But for Amis, all these vices are the occasion for grotesque, Hogarthian satire. McEwan, on the other hand, has always been a cool, clinical writer. When Beard, just before delivering a talk, wolfs down nine smoked-salmon sandwiches ("he was not at the moment truly hungry, but he was, in his own term, pre-hungry") and then spends the whole speech struggling with the urge to vomit, McEwan seems to be setting up a pretty broad and familiar kind of joke. But when he writes of the "stagnant estuary, decaying gaseously in his gut," the "bloated carcass within his own … odiously stirring," the "fishy reflex rising from his gorge, like salted anchovies, with a dash of bile," it is not laughter the reader fights to keep down, but a sympathetic gag reflex.

Throughout Solar, Beard inspires this same unsettling mixture of humor and disgust. When the novel opens, in the year 2000, he seems a pitiable figure. It has been decades since he won the Nobel, for something called the Beard-Einstein Conflation, and at age 53 he has settled into the routine life of a scientific administrator. He can hardly be bothered to feign interest in the work of the Centre for Renewable Energy, of which he is the nominal chief. All his own energy goes into the debacle of his fifth marriage: His wife Patrice is openly having an affair with a builder named Tarpin in retaliation for Beard's prolific womanizing.

The clearest sign of Beard's cynicism is the way he refuses to listen to Tom Aldous, a young postdoc at the Centre with all the passion and brilliance he himself has lost. Aldous is convinced that, using Beard's Conflation (which McEwan, wisely, does not attempt to explain), he can devise a way of producing cheap, unlimited solar power. The friendlier and more idealistic Aldous seems, however, the more he disgusts Beard:

"There were novels Aldous wanted him to read—novels!—and developments in contemporary music he thought Beard should be aware of, and movies that were of particular relevance, documentaries about climate change which Aldous had seen at least twice but would happily see again if there was a chance of making the Chief sit through them too."

It is a sign of McEwan's comic skill that he makes us sympathize with Beard's irritation at the very idea of reading a novel, while we are—of course—reading a novel. McEwan has always declared, no doubt a little mischievously, his preference for the sciences over the humanities. Later in Solar, a flashback shows us Beard at college, wooing his first wife by faking an interest in Milton and discovering how much easier it is to bullshit about literature than about physics:

"The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week. He suspected there was nothing they talked about there that anyone with half an intelligence could not understand. … And yet they passed themselves off as his intellectual superiors, these lie-a-beds, and he had let them intimidate him. No longer … he was intellectually free."

It takes a careful reader to detect McEwan's irony inside Beard's irony, to remember that this tirade against literature is delivered by a character who is himself, the reader comes to learn, an intellectual fraud. It would spoil the book to reveal any of McEwan's carefully plotted twists—how Beard wriggles free of the personal and professional traps that surround him only to find himself, in the end, on the brink of even worse calamities. Longtime readers of McEwan know how skilled he is at producing disasters from the ordinary, the way a magician pulls a bunny from a hat. They will recognize that when McEwan casually mentions a slippery rug in the first few pages of Solar, it is the equivalent of Chekhov's loaded gun in the first act.

And the larger meanings of Solar are no more straightforward. Is science really so divorced from the humanities, or intelligence from goodness, as McEwan provokingly suggests? It is not clear that he wants us to think so, or that he intends Solar to feel as misanthropic as it often does. But in a novel full of grim jokes, the grimmest is the possibility that if the planet is to stand a chance of being saved, its fate may lie in the hands of a man like Michael Beard.

Become a fan of  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

Even by Russian Standards, Moscow’s  Anti-War March Was Surprisingly Grim

I Wrote a Novel Envisioning a Nigerian Space Program. Then I Learned Nigeria Actually Has One.

Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 11:13 AM Your Own Personal Rand Paul How the libertarian hero makes his foreign policy contradictions disappear.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 12:07 PM Divestment Isn’t the Answer To destroy demand for fossil fuels, universities can do a lot better than just selling some stocks.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 22 2014 12:00 PM Dear Prudence Live Chat For September 22, 2014.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 11:32 AM South Park Takes on Washington’s NFL Team and Its Terrible Name
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 11:23 AM Robot Plants Are the Latest in a Long Line of Robot Thingies
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 11:23 AM Two Impacts, One Landslide… on Mercury
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.