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Ian McEwan, Teasing Farce From Flawed Humanity

About five years ago, the writer Ian McEwan joined a group of artists and scientists on a weeklong trip to the Arctic. The trip was sponsored by a British-based project called Cape Farewell, and the idea was to inspire artists to think about climate change.

In fact, the trip was partly responsible for inspiring McEwan's latest novel, Solar. In a BBC documentary, McEwan noted that once you get past the cold, the Arctic landscape is unlike any other, full of "extraordinary formations."

It was something far less grand that sparked McEwan's first idea for Solar. Over dinner one night, he told his companions on the expedition that chaos had overtaken the room where all their gear was stowed. In the documentary, McEwan told his companions that the situation seemed to him a perfect metaphor for human frailty: an illustration of how even the best of intentions can go awry when in the hands of human beings.

"All it needs is one mistake, and then there's a domino effect of someone saying, 'Well, dammit,' you know, 'I'll take those boots because someone took my boots.' And you actually have a social contract in total collapse. The boot room now is a scene of total lack of cooperation. Environmentalists who care about the planet can't even get their boots together."


Before going to the Arctic, McEwan had been interested in the issue of climate change, but he couldn't figure out a way to write a novel that wouldn't sound preachy — until something about the disarray in the ship's boot room gave him an idea.

"It seemed to strike a chord with a lot else that I'd understood about climate science, the politics of it and human institutions," McEwan says. "We're very good at making wide and sweeping statements of intent, but once we get down to it, often very little happens. And that, at least, gave me the first suspicion that maybe the route into this was through comedy, a comedy of human nature."

Powerful Egos

That boot room scene eventually made its way into Solar. Like McEwan, the book's main character, Michael Beard, takes a journey to the Arctic. Beard doesn't care much about climate change; he just wants to get away from the chaos of his own life. He falls under the spell of the Arctic and his amiable companions, but he can't put aside minor irritations like the messy boot room.

Beard is invited on the Arctic journey because he is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. McEwan says he knew he had to write about a Nobel winner after being introduced to some of these scientific giants at a conference.

"I've never been in a room bristling with such powerful egos," McEwan says. "I mean, these guys are grand. And it was at that point that I thought, if I ever get around to writing a novel about climate science, I definitely have to award a Nobel Prize to my principal character."

Michael Beard may have the towering ego of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist but he is also a womanizer who has cheated on each of his five wives. He eats too much, drinks too much and has virtually no moral compass. As for his scientific accomplishments, he lives off the laurels of his past glory. His foray into the science of climate change is spurred by a bizarre accident that offers him an opening to steal someone else's ideas.

"He's somewhat lazy, rather greedy, full of resolutions to give up eating junk food and lose weight and get fit." Beard, McEwan says, "sort of believes in climate change but skeptically, can't be bothered to get too interested in it, until an opportunity presents itself and then he sees a chance to both save the world, make his name and to make some money."

McEwan says this farcical portrayal of a scientist loaded down with bad habits is his way of depicting how difficult it is for spoiled, lazy, self-centered human beings to take on the challenges required to reverse the effects of climate change. And despite, or maybe even because of his many flaws, Beard was a fun character to create.

"It's interesting to have such a wildly erroneous guy at the center of things," McEwan says. "I could get him to say and do things that maybe I wouldn't if I was trying to make a climate science novel and have a paragon of virtue at its center. ... It gave me a sort of freedom to just lash out a bit."

Though McEwan is probably best known for his novel Atonement, which was set mostly in the past, both Solar and his recent novel, Saturday, take place in the present and explore the anxieties of a rapidly changing world where threats come from humans and nature.

"The present is always noisy and contentious," McEwan says. "We all have a very different view of the present and a slightly more coherent and generally more settled view of the past. So when you write about the present and in the present, you get your hands a little more dirty, and you find that people disagree with your take."

McEwan says he has no idea whether his next book will be set in the past, the present or the future. Nor does he know what it will be about. And that, he says, is part of the pleasure of being a novelist: never knowing what will inspire you next.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

BooksMorning Edition
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.