The main character and narrator of the novel Solar by Ian McEwan is Michael Beard, a repulsive Nobel Prize- winning physicist who had the stereotypical experience of a flash of brilliance as a young physicist, soon after which he intellectually burned out. Beard drifts into being involved in developing green technology (wind, solar), but he's not too interested in it until he steals the ideas of a postdoc who was having an affair with Beard's 5th wife (an affair she initiated in revenge for her husband's many affairs) but who dies in an accident in Beard's home when he trips over a polar bear skin rug, whose dangers were foreshadowed, soon after Beard returns from a bizarre trip to the Arctic, where he (Beard) encountered an angry polar bear. Is everyone with me so far?
That's just one small part of the book, most of which consists of tale after tale of excess: eating, drinking, lying, stealing, womanizing. It is not a pleasant book, but it is not entirely without its charms. If you can get past the absurd plot and the revolting characters, it's possible to enjoy some of the writing.
Except for one part, which, for me, was even worse than the Polar Bear of Doom scenes:
In the part of the book I particularly loathed, Beard agrees to head up a government committee charged with promoting physics in schools and attracting more students and teachers to physics. He doesn't give the committee much thought when he agrees to be part of it. The committee consists of three physics professors, various school teachers and headmasters, and a professor of "science studies".
At the first meeting, everyone on the committee introduces themselves, and Beard is curious to hear from the professor of science studies because the field is a "novelty" to him. The professor begins by noting that "..she was the only woman in the room and that the committee reflected one of the very problems it might want to address."
Fair enough. Good point. The committee is sympathetic to this. I was sympathetic to this.
The science studies professor, however, goes on to explain a recent research project in which she studied a genetics lab that was trying to isolate a particular gene in lions.
"Her purpose was to demonstrate that this gene, or any gene, was, in the strongest sense, socially constructed. Without the various "entexting" tools the scientists used.. the gene could not be said to exist... The gene was not an objective entity.. It was manufactured by their [the scientists'] hypotheses, their creativity, and their instrumentation.."
Now everyone, including me, thinks she is a blathering idiot, as intended by McEwan. When the science studies professor is done speaking, one of the physicists asks "Do you honestly believe that what you don't know about doesn't exist?"
Beard, as chairman, doesn't want to waste time arguing about whether genes are real or not, so he ends the discussion, and moves along to other items on the agenda, noting vaguely that they will have time to discuss these issues in subsequent meetings.
Later that day, the committee holds a press conference to a group of bored reporters. Tedious questions are asked; tedious answers are given. The committee's aims are worthy; there's nothing newsworthy about it.
But then: "a woman from a midmarket tabloid" asks about the underrepresentation of women in physics. Beard says that the committee will be looking into this to see if there were new ways to address the issue.
All would be well if he had stopped there. But of course he doesn't stop there. He keeps talking.
"He [Beard] believed there were no longer any institutional barriers or prejudices.. And then, because he was boring himself, he added that it might have to be accepted one day that a ceiling had been reached.. It was at least conceivable that they [women] would always remain in a minority.. There might always be more men than women who wanted to work in physics.."
He then goes on to explain that the brains of men and women are different, and that it's not about superiority, merely that there are innate differences in cognitive ability and interests. Boys are better at problem-solving etc.
Does some of this sound familiar?
Anyway, the reporters at the press conference are not particularly energized by these claims, but the professor of science studies is. She expresses her violent revulsion of what Beard has just said, then announces her resignation from the committee. She walks out. The reporters perk up and follow her out.
This is just the start of Beard's trouble with the "women and physics" issue, especially once journalists unearth his long troubled history with women (the many wives, the many affairs). And then it gets worse for him when he participates in a debate about the issue. He is the only Scientist in the debate.
Beard repeats what he said at the press conference; the cognitive differences between men and women etc. He is irritated. He wonders aloud if gravity is also a social construct, and he is booed.
A woman in the audience who rails about Beard's "hegemonic arrogance" speaks in "stern, headmistressy tones". The academic who debates him has "a red and blue frock, with a twittering voice to match". After the debate, Beard thinks he has done OK, considering how boring the twittery woman was.
But things soon go awry, and the plot gets even more farcical. Beard's career is (temporarily) destroyed by hysterical women who, helped considerably by the media, portray him as a sexist Nazi elite hegemonic unfeeling white male. Or something.
Other than a few glimmers here and there in the novel, when the reader might sort of feel some sympathy for Beard because he is, at times, cynical in an amusing way, this is one of the few episodes in which he is portrayed sympathetically. He blunders into this crisis unwittingly. It's true that he is a serial philanderer, but he is not sexist. He was only saying things that were true and scientific, backed up by research. He is just a simple scientist, and is a victim of these crazy women who don't understand science.
There are many good reasons why Beard's career as an administrator should have been destroyed, so it is ironic that he is brought down by these events, which, we are supposed to believe, aren't even his fault. The novel is otherwise a relentless, over-the-top depiction of a repulsive person who continually outdoes himself in disgusting behavior. Yet Beard becomes a sort of martyr-scientist, a well-meaning white male scientist attacked by people who have no understanding of Science but who are interested in demonizing men, concocting hysteria, and ignoring the undeniable fact that men and women are different.
I have read several reviews of this book, but none of the ones I read mentioned this particular episode. Some focused on the polar bear theme, and many rave about how well the author did with the "science" aspects of the novel (climate science, physics). Some reviewers, who seem to recognize that the book is a strange collection of disgusting anecdotes, resort to the rather desperate opinion that the book is so bad, it's actually brilliant. Overall, I would say that reviews are mixed but positive; e.g., Solar is not McEwan's best, but compared to what other authors can come up with, at least the ones who are still alive, it's awesome. And so on.
I think the book is a mess. Even so, despite the despicable parody about stupid women who don't understand science and the general unpleasantness of the plot and characters, I seldom regret reading a book, even ones I hate, this one included.
6 months ago