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Solar    by Ian McEwan order for
by Ian McEwan
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Nan A. Talese, 2010 (2010)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

As Ian McEwan's Solar opens in the year 2000, Nobel prize-winning, philandering physicist Michael Beard's glory days seem to be behind him. He has been appointed (more of less honorary) head (sprinkled as he is 'with Stockholm's magic dust') of a new government research establishment, whose objective is renewable energy, and obsesses over saving his fifth marriage. It's the first one in which the woman decided it was over before he did. Patrice 'kept him at a distance with lethal cheerfulness' and is seeing their builder.

Tom Aldous, one of the young postdocs whom Beard supervises, is passionate about solar energy, and puts together a proposal for the generation of electricity from sunlight via artificial photosynthesis, building on Beard's prior Nobel-winning work. After Beard returns from a farcical expedition to the frozen north, along with other 'artists and scientists concerned with climate change', he discovers that Tom was having an affair with Patrice. There's an accident (for which the builder is blamed) and Beard takes over Tom's brilliant work as his own, reviving his career.

The story fast forwards to 2005, with Beard working hard to launch a solar energy project. A run-in with a feminist colleague garners him the wrong kind of media attention and he concludes that 'To suggest the possibility of genetic influence, genetic difference, of an evolutionary past bearing down in some degree on cognition, on men and women, on culture, was to some minds like entering a camp and volunteering to work with Dr. Mengele.' (I enjoyed these story detours at least as much as the main plot.)

We then jump ahead again to 2009, when working solar panels developed from Tom Aldous's idea are about to go public in New Mexico - 'the day after tomorrow a new chapter would begin in the history of industrial civilization, and the earth's future would be assured.' Sadly, this is also when Beard's past life - and past mistakes - start to catch up with him and end up derailing something much bigger than he was - he sees it as 'a conspiracy to prevent him from making his gift to the world.'

A vein of irony runs through the entire novel. When we read biographies of great scientists we are often surprised by their basic humanity. Ian McEwan has built Solar around a particularly flawed specimen. Though it's hard (especially for a woman) to like Michael Beard, it's also hard not to start feeling sorry for the way his weak character determines not only his own destiny, but also that of his life's work.

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