When his professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Dr. Michael Beard to extricate himself from his marital problems, reinvigorate his career, and save the world from environmental disaster.
We see him at three moments of his increasingly disordered life—in 2000, 2005, and 2009—and we might, given Beard’s addiction to booze, food, sex, cheating, and intricate malevolence, think of the whole novel as a shaggy hog story, an adventure that can’t end because it never began … Of course it’s fun to think of this rascal as engaged in trying to save the earth—a man who hates the very word ‘planet’ gets caught up in doing good because he thinks it will do him good—but the irony is rather broad, and tends to soften our view of Beard … Generally, even the slowness works in the novel’s favor. There is a patient precision in the language … There is an aphorism lurking here: we ourselves can only be punished too much, others can never be punished enough.
On settling down to read Solar, two striking features of the novel are immediately apparent. First, that it is a stunningly accomplished work, possibly his best yet; and second, that the book does contain a truly shocking surprise – not that it deals with climate change, but that it is a comedy. This amounts to a revolutionary shift in tone, in his 11th novel, for a writer famed for his seriousness … The task he has set himself in Solar appears to be the most ambitious one yet. The state-of-the-nation novel is a familiar genre; in taking on the topic of global warming, McEwan appears to have set out to write about the state of the planet.
Solar, spanning the years 2000–2009, is divided into three sections, each with its own catalogue of humiliations … In Solar—just as in 2006’s plodding, oddly lifeless Saturday—the historical markers are all in place (Bush v. Gore, Iraq, Obama’s election), and the science and technology are up to the minute and sufficiently digested for a lay reader to feel edified. And the plot brings the fatuous Beard to a reckoning foreseeable enough to seem inevitable and just preposterous enough to remind us that McEwan, acting as his story’s controlling, mortal God, has been behind it from the start. It has begun to look like Briony Tallis’s meditation on the novelist’s “absolute power of deciding outcomes” from Atonement is McEwan’s credo; he is the God who spends six days making the world and the seventh reminding us he did.