Friday, February 4, 2011

Science and Fiction

If you are a reader who likes books where the main character is admirable, or likable, or even sympathetic, please don't read Ian McEwan's Solar. McEwan's protagonist, Nobel Prize winning physicist Michael Beard, is a philandering, self-delusional, boorish old goat, and there are at least five other unpleasant adjectives I could have added to that list. This is not the first time McEwan has created a pompous gasbag ( see Henry Perowne in “Saturday”), but he seems to have gone out of his way to make this man as loathsome as possible.

And yet...the guy knows how to write. When Michael, who has latched onto global warming as a way to keep the grant money and lecture invitations coming in, travels to the Arctic with a group of earnest planet-savers, his misadventures had me laughing out loud. McEwan also manages to weave in a fair amount of physics and environmental science without lecturing. The solar solution that Beard developed (he stole the concept from another scientist) actually seemed plausible, and when he traveled to New Mexico to power up his prototype system I was actually hoping it would work.

As in many of McEwan's novels, you can feel yourself hurtling toward a disaster, and you keep turning pages in spite of yourself. But the story is told from Beard's point of view, and he is one cold customer, so the crashing conclusion doesn't pack the wallop that other novels have.

It's not McEwan at his best, but it's still an enjoyable and often very funny read.
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