This novel takes the grand theme of climate change and what can be done to prevent catastrophe. “The planet is sick,” says Nobel Prize winner Michael Beard, whose prototype form of power from the sun (hence the title) will end human dependence on rapidly declining fossil fuels.
But climate change is no more than background. What fills the novel is Beard’s constantly inflating self, as he moves from one massive meal and one woman’s body to another. If the planet is sick, so is he. He vomits profusely after delivering a defence of climate change action to a group of sceptical businessmen. He faces the threat of cancer (another sinister product of solar power).
He is a spectacular individual example of the planetary danger of endless destructive desire. He frames his fifth wife’s lover for the accidental death of a student researcher (another of her lovers) and steals his ideas.
He is (incomprehensibly) the object of love and devotion, but incapable himself of love. Yet he speaks the truth about climate change (even if his speech to the businessmen is a tissue of plagiarisms) and is committed to building his prototype – even though it’s not his intellectual property.
The incongruity produces some funny, if not always subtle, scenes, as in the episode when Beard, stuck in the Arctic to observe the effects of global warming, nearly loses his penis to frostbite.
But take away the background of climate change and the foreground story of Michael Beard’s fate at the hands of his victims (the man he has framed and the women he is duping) is curiously thin.
There is only one character in the novel, Michael Beard himself. No other character is allowed a voice of his or her own. Fitting though this might be for such an egotist, there is a problem about the depiction of Beard. His many prejudices are given full rein – but in a way that appears to distance us from them while simultaneously and surreptitiously endorsing them.
McEwan is a liberal, writing in a period when the middle classes (the traditional subjects of such fiction) have moved right. They are unhappy about what the market has done to their culture but increasingly open to its attractions. The world around them is made of people on whom they depend but whom they fear as competitors.
Beard is the immoral consumerist par excellence but he is also the flip side of liberal individualism, to whose ethos McEwan is tied.
Like his friend and fellow novelist Martin Amis, McEwan is a rightward-moving liberal whose Islamophobia is justified in the name of progress. Amis claimed he was just imagining what it would be like if he were to give in to a prejudiced feeling about Muslims. Similarly, Solar invites us to indulge in a character’s prejudices while imagining we are not doing so.