Ian McEwan's 2010 novel Solar asks what's probably the most pertinent question of our time: will our dysfunction eclipse our brilliance?
In the first piece I ever posted on Beams, I quoted HL Mencken's opinion that in great literature, the protagonist is a personification of the setting. Of course there are exceptions to this, but when it works, man oh man, do the fireworks ever start popping in my brain.
(Warning: Spoilers abound. And read the novel! It's awesome! Then come back.)
Solar introduces the reader to Michael Beard, a British nobel laureate physicist, famous for "the Beard-Einstein conflation" - a bit of science that isn't fully explained, and if it were, I probably wouldn't understand it anyway. But we can trust it's something really hard that only someone really smart could have come up with. Much less in their twenties.
In the year 2000, he's in his fifties. Since coming up with the Conflation, he's been making his living as a Public Figure of Science, giving lectures, appearing on talk shows, sitting on boards, and heading up an institution where he only makes token appearances. His fifth marriage (to a much younger woman) crumbles, thanks to his wife's infidelity with a beefy, bullying contractor. Beard's no paragon of virtue, having cheated on her multiple times, and brought his previous marriages to an end the same way.
An accident brings about the death of an assistant in a way that could easily be construed by investigating police as murder on Beard's part. So he arranges the evidence to point to his wife's lover, and gets away with the frame-up.
Five years later, Beard's turned a corner, dedicating himself to solar technology. Four further years later, he's about to unveil it. But his ideas were largely taken from that assistant killed earlier in the novel. Beard claims the innovations as his own, seeming to believe his own story.
Nearing what would surely be an historic moment in modern civilization - an entire town being fully powered by solar energy - Beard's world closes in. The man he sent to prison is released, and comes looking for him. The father of Beard's assistant seeks a legal injunction, having found a cache of his son's notes. The two new women in Beard's life both claim him and are ready to square off, and both seem like new disasters of different kinds. He's avoiding his doctors' pleas for further tests for the splotchy growth on his skin. And his heart stutters and thumps from his steady diet of booze, sugar and deep fried grease.
Beard is us. Exceptional in our knowledge, short on wisdom. With the solution to some of our most crucial problems conceivably within reach, and the magnitude of our self-involvement, short-sightedness and penchant for instant gratification being the exact thing that might kick out the stool from underneath our feet a mere second before we can cut the rope we've spent decades stringing around our collective neck.