Ian McEwan answers questions about Solar:
Solar is a novel about arguably the greatest threat facing mankind today – climate change. It’s also very funny. Two questions: when did you decide to write about climate change; and why did you decide to make the resulting novel a funny one?
I started thinking about a novel that would have climate change either in its background or right in its foreground sometime in the late nineties. And I was very put off by all the obvious problems that it posed. It’s impacted with graphs, figures, statistics, and physics, and some very hard biology, as well as everything else that it affects – poles and oceans and air currents and goodness knows what else. I mean, it really did seem repellent, as it were, as a set of material. On the other hand, it is a great threat to us – it will invade our thinking about how we live, our relationship to the state, our relationships with each other, the relationship between rich countries and poor countries. It seemed to penetrate our lives, to such an extent that it seemed an irresistible subject for a novel. And there I was, stuck between these two thoughts.
I went to the Arctic with a group of artists and scientists concerned about climate change, and we lived for a week on a boat in a frozen fjord. And ostensibly the idea was to be there to watch, see for ourselves climate change in action, because obviously the pole, particularly the north pole, is the region most effected. In fact we were right in a cold snap, all the locals were saying ‘we’ve never known it so bloody freezing’. So what I did in these freezing conditions was to take some long hikes in spectacular wilderness with a group of others and a guide with a gun in case we met polar bears, and I had time to reflect on our rather strange time on this boat. Twenty–five of us, in a very small space, and the captain, very charming, and a team looking after us. And they had some very strict rules, one of which was that we all had to take off all this outer gear in a tiny cramped boot room before coming on board to the boat, so that we didn’t bring ice and snow into the living quarters. And in the evenings we’d be sitting around, drinking wine, with nice food cooked for us, and we’d be talking about how to save the world, climate change and what must be done, and we were moaning on about George Bush, and the failure of Rio, and the failure of everything else… a general sort of pessimism of intellectuals when gathered talking about the world.
And meanwhile, as each day passed, the boot room became more and more chaotic. People started – not quite pinching each others things, but not finding their own, and finding something a bit like it, and this chaos eventually extended itself to every corner of this boot room. And by the end of the week, it really was in a terrible state. And I found myself very amused by the discrepancy of our ambitions for the planet that lay to our south, and the fact that these few square feet right behind our backs through a bulkhead was in such a state, that we couldn’t even organise the boot room. And our chances of organising nations and individuals and corporations and governments were clearly somewhat beyond our reach. And I thought well there is a human comedy in this, and any route into a novel about climate change, or that has climate change as a theme will really have to address human nature. So at least then I had a starting point, I had no idea really how such a novel was going to be written or who was going to be in it, but I did at least have an atmosphere for it, and I thought that a degree of forgiving humour would have to be at its core.
Was there a sense in which – after the constriction of On Chesil Beach – you wanted something broader, both in the writing and in the width of the canvas and the humour?
Possibly. Although by the time I started Solar I wasn’t really thinking about On Chesil Beach. But I suppose recently I have switched between writing novels which are vaguely historical – Atonement is certainly set in the past, On Chesil Beach likewise – to novels that try to engage with our condition and circumstances now, like Saturday, like Solar, like Black Dogs for that matter. The Innocent was also set back in the fifties, most of it. So it’s more the past and the present than the scale that I feel gives me the necessary change of environment, to start again.
The science in Solar is very impressive. Did you do an enormous amount of research?
I read a lot of papers and books on climate science, and beyond that, not a great deal, I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein which actually gave me a very useful background in the physics, as well as the life. I travelled around New Mexico and spoke to people at the National Laboratory for Renewable Energy and at least saw what was going on there. And I spoke to physicists here. But the research was mainly in the reading, actually. But then I was in the Galapagos last year and I ran into and made friends with a physicist at Cambridge, Graeme Mitchison. He read a draft, so it was sort of post–facto research in a way. He was able to then just correct small items of quantum mechanics, and so on. And it was Graeme then who wrote for me the citation for Michael Beard’s Nobel Prize.
And artificial photosynthesis, which Beard discovers in the novel, is that being discovered now? Are people working on it?
There are some labs, and there was a breakthrough at MIT the year before last, there’s a team in Australia working on it, every now and then you’ll read in either in a broadsheet newspaper or in the New Scientist, or in Nature, a tiny little advance on this. It’s made no contribution at the moment to generating electricity by making hydrogen and oxygen out of sunlight and water. But it is one of those technologies that’s potentially explosive. There’s a lot of hope around it, and I needed to find a technology – which is actually why I had to read so many books and papers – I had to find a technology that Beard could be interested in that was just, sort of a little bit beyond what we have now, but was rooted in the realms of plausibility. I mean this is a realist novel in a sense. Even though it’s comic and exaggerated and a bit wild in places, I wanted its feet to be on the ground in terms of the science, that the science was not made up. But yes, artificial photosynthesis requires the application of quantum mechanics – rather than classical Newtonian mechanics – to the process of stages one and two of photosynthesis, so it does require some thinking that is unusual in biology. It does require nanotechnology, and it does requires things that have not quite made themselves available. But it’s just around the corner.
Talking about Beard, there’s a wonderful first sentence: ‘He belonged to that class of men, vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever, who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women.’ It sounds as if you know somebody very like him. Is that the case?
No, not really – and I know I’m going to have this problem with people – I went to dinner at the institute of Physics, and they said ‘Oh yeah, that’s’, and they named some Physicist, and I was horrified, and they said well he is rather short and fat, and he’s got an incredibly beautiful wife, and it’s the third beautiful wife he’s had, and I thought ‘Oh my God, every short fat bald physicist, or whoever, is going to come pursuing me’. But then I thought well the more the better, as long as there’s not just one, I’m fine. I mean, to put this on a higher level, Flaubert, when he’d finished Madame Bovary, I think there were thirty–seven court actions by chemists who thought Monsieur Homais was based on them. And of course it was self–defeating, because if there were thirty–seven, then Flaubert was safe. But no, this is not a Roman à Clé. I want to get very clear about that.
One of the bits I love about Beard is when he’s wooing his first wife – his first wife is an English student reading Milton, and he is a Physics student – he decides to read the whole of Milton and the entire critical apparatus in a weekend. Again, that made one feel – made me feel, anyway – that this is a real person. Is that a true story? Do you know somebody who’s done that?
Michael Beard’s seduction of his first wife by boning up on Milton is not based on any particular story that I know, but it is based on a suspicion I’ve long held, and it’s this: I myself did English Literature as an undergraduate, and I did an MA in it too, I think it’s one of the softest, daftest subjects that was ever proposed at University. I know how hard the biologists, the chemists, the physicists work, when I remember how little work the rest of us did to get an English degree – sit around for three years, read a handful of novels and poems and get to know them reasonably well, and get a certain kind of intellectual blaze and aura from it that never seemed to attach itself to the poor old chemists and geographers, did seem to me profoundly unjust. So I put myself in the shoes of an anguished scientist thinking ‘come on, really is it that hard?’ If you’re reasonably intelligent you can get your mind round Milton, you can read the stuff. And you can even commit to memory a chunk and impress a girl, find your way into her bed. So that’s what I did.
And the crisp packet? The wonderful set piece?
This is pure urban myth. I mean, it is what was called ‘The Unwitting Thief Story’, in which a man is on a train, he has a packet of biscuits, he thinks they’re his, he starts eating them, a stranger on the train starts to help himself to them too, and neither man speaks, and then when our man gets off the train, he finds the biscuits are in his pocket. When I read that story at the Literary festival at Hay, in the signing queue afterwards, more than half a dozen people said ‘that has happened to me or a friend of mine’. Douglas Adams says it happened to him on a train, and he put it in a novel. It’s the plot of a couple of movies – it’s a story that goes around like a dirty joke. It reached these shores, according to my researches, in about 1970. It was around at the turn of the century, nineteenth to twentieth century in the States. It constantly shifts and changes, sometimes it’s about a man changing a tire on his car, and someone comes to help him, and he accuses him of stealing his wallet, and he goes home and finds the wallet on his bed. It’s protean in this sense. At the same time, it’s an irresistible story. There’s a sort of anguish of guilt and self–punishment about it that I think is delicious. So I wanted it both ways, I tell the story but I also then have Beard confront an urban legend professor who irritates Michael Beard by saying actually your story belongs to a stereotype, and of course when people say that to us we want to say ‘No, but this is my experience, and I claim it’. But, no it’s a wonderful story, and irresistible.
And there’s a turning point in the novel, which – like often in your fiction, things change radically from one moment – and this one is when Beard returns and finds one of the pony–tailed PhD’s have been at the centre near Reading, in his dressing gown, on his sofa, obviously having made love to his wife, and there then follows a marvellous scene. Had you choreographed that scene, I mean had you seen that coming from a long way away?
I think of writing as a means of trying to generate your own luck, as it were. So actually the root into so much in this novel was very messy, it always is with me, I’m hopeless at making plans, I just have to inhabit the territory and then find out what’s going to happen. And in fact with Solar, what is now the second section is what I wrote first. I wrote the story of a man rushing towards a meeting in central London to give a lecture on climate change to investors in the City. Then when I finished all that, I thought now I’ve got to go back, I’ve got to go back and find out the aspect of real fraudulence in this character. And so that was then a piece of chance, really. And once I’d thought of the centre where Beard works, which is really based on the lab in Colorado, the National Renewable Energy lab, but a dowdier English version, and once I’d done that, then suddenly up popped all these post–doctoral Physics young men with pony tails, and then I thought well one of them has to be the one that Beard is going to steal his life’s work from. So things fall in to place in the writing of a novel based on what you’ve already got. So although I didn’t plan it, I suddenly saw – and, in fact, I was in New Mexico, and somewhat lent me a house, and I had time to write up my notes on visits to the lab, and to the Solar Energy centre – and whilst I was doing that, I suddenly saw how Beard was going to steal the work of a young man, but feel alright about it because this young man was having an affair with his wife. And in that sense, it sort of fell into my lap.
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