Required Reading, book reviews for the solar crowd – “Solar” by Ian McEwan

Book reviewed: Solar by Ian McEwan.

Rating: Two out of four stars.

Fellow bookworms will understand, that sense of urgent hope you feel when you think you’ve found your next, long-awaited literary conquest. Your next “must read.”

I first heard about Solar, originally published in 2010, when the CBC replayed an interview with author Ian McEwan. I was excited – the main character is a solar photosynthesis researcher and according to reviewers, the book was promised to be a humorous critique on climate change and the much purported savior, renewable energy.

While there were a few moments of laugh out loud slapstick, this book is dark and cynical. The anti-hero and narrator is the aging Nobel prizing-winning physicist Michael Beard, who represents everything wrong with today’s consumption-driven society. His list of sins is impressive: he is obese, a serial adulterer, a liar, a thief, and a spineless man with raging appetites who can’t say no to anyone. It was impossible to find anything to like or relate to in Beard. The Guardian review described him as “one dimensional” and that “it feels as if you are locked inside an echo chamber, listening only to the reverberations of the one same sound – the groan of a fat, selfish man in late middle age eating himself.”

Yes, that pretty much sums Beard up.

Through Beard, the novel’s central theme is delivered about as subtly as a frying pan to the head.  If humanity continues with this level of denial, finger pointing and self-justification, we will deserve the disaster of climate change that we have brought down upon ourselves. And our desperate struggle for the technological holy grail of climate change mitigation, solar energy, will be for naught if we can’t fix our own moral faults.

So, definitely not a light read.

“Why then,” my fellow solar nerds are bound to ask, “did you bother to slog through the book if you disliked it so much?” Because hidden deep within are brilliant flashes of wonderful prose, uplifting, that re-affirm why I chose to work in renewables.

 This excerpt is just hilarious; I have read these same statistics more times than I can count in various blogs and PV magazines. This is from earlier in the book, before Beard joints Team Save the Planet. [Excerpt condensed for brevity.]

“D’you know, I read this guy saying somewhere that less than an hour’s worth of all the sunlight falling on the earth would satisfy the whole world’s needs for a year,” [said Aldous.]

Unimpressed, Beard said, “And what was this guy taking as his measure of solar irradiance?”

“One quarter of the solar constant.”

“Too optimistic. You’d need to half that again.”

“My points stands, Professor Beard. Solar arrays on a tiny fraction of the world’s deserts would give us all the power we need.” […]

[Beard] said sullenly, “if you could distribute it.”

“Yes, New DC lines! That’s just money and effort. Worth it for the planet! For our future, Professor Beard!”

And if you happen to pick up a copy of the novel, may I suggest you flip it open to pages 170 through 180. Beard delivers a wonderful speech to a room full of potential institutional investors, hoping to sway their conservative opinions.

“And this brings us to the central question, the burning question. How do we slow down and stop [burning fossil fuels] while sustaining our civilization and continuing to bring millions out of poverty? Not by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car. That merely delays the catastrophe by a year or two. Any delay is useful, but it’s not the solution. This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. […] Our planet, Earth, is a finite entity. You have the data in front of you, you have the choice – the human project must be safely and cleanly fueled or it fails, it sinks.”

So while the book may not be worth the hard-cover price tag, it might be worth a trip to the library for a quick skim.

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As an energy professional working in solar manufacturing, I enjoy blogging about Canada's growing renewable energy industry.

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