“It’s a catastrophe. Relax!”
Those are the words of Michael Beard, the Nobel laureate physicist long past his prime who is the anti-hero of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar, out this week in the United States. McEwan, no stranger to writing scientist characters or scientific themes, dives this time headlong into climate change. McEwan says he was nervous attempting to write fiction about a subject that has the potential to be, well, dull. But Solar is a laugh-out-loud read thanks to its ridiculous protagonist and willingness to make light of the apocalyptic seriousness of the conversation.
At the book’s outset, in the year 2000, Beard isn’t particularly convinced about climate change. He’s coasting on his reputation as a Nobelist, making money giving repetitive lectures and sitting on various boards, when suddenly he finds himself in charge of a shiny new British government research center out to build the next new thing in alternative energy. In the second part of “Solar,” Beard has become a believer in global warming, working on a way to get non-carbon power from artificial photosynthesis—a new application of a never-quite-explained theory that he came up with in his 20s. Unfortunately, he didn’t discover the application himself. He stole it from his dead assistant [Wall Street Journal], the marvelously enthusiastic (or at least enthusiastic until an unfortunate encounter with a coffee table) Tom Aldous.