Saturday, October 8, 2011

100 Books 52 - Ian McEwan's SOLAR

I feel a little bit bamboozled, when I turn my mind to this one. I haven't read any of McEwan's other work but he's classed with a lot of science fiction writers I admire, and so I dove into this "New York Times Notable Book" expecting some good near-future sci-fi and some nice thoughts on an alternative-energy future to boot, but that's not really what I got.

This is much more of an entry into the "white male narcissist" genre -- so named by the late David Foster Wallace, very aptly. We have here a middle aged protagonist whom John Updike and his ilk could easily have inflicted on us, most of the story concerning his various failures as a lover, a housekeeper, a driver of his own destiny -- failures at self-care, at continence, at social relationships -- and oh, it just happens that he is a Nobel prize-winning physicist who has inherited (from a protege who died stupidly just minutes after being caught in flagrante with our protagonist's fifth wife) the foundations for artificial photosynthesis, a technology that could finally make solar energy a reasonable replacement for fossil fuels.

As a White Male Narcissist book it's one of the less annoying I've encountered; as science fiction it's so-so. What saves it from being an oh-God-delete-it-from-my-Kindle drag is something cunning that it achieves: it conveys the feeling that we're getting a peek behind the scenes at what is really holding alternative energy back, namely, the messed-up personal lives of the staggeringly ordinary men and women doing the science, the engineering, and the logistics. This coupled with the way the protagonist, Michael Beard, serves as rather a sly and amusing stand-in for all of us westerners, who know we need to shape up and stop being such idiots about our present and future but never quite seem to take those necessary first steps -- pass up that bacon double cheeseburger, take a jog around the block, turn down an ill-advised sexual liaison, buy a hybrid vehicle or shut off the air conditioner, act in any way like a responsible, competent adult -- to addressing the heap of problems piling high and threatening to topple and engulf us.

So I don't consider the time spent reading Solar to be wasted as such, but as I am pretty well convinced already that anthropogenic climate change is a reality and that redressing those ills starts at home (hence my love of bicycle commuting and hand-cranked gadgets and other ways to lessen ye carbone footeprinte), I'm not sure that if I'd had a clearer idea of what I was getting into with this novel, I would have taken it up.


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