greatest novelists in any language of our times, a banal question. But then, if his latest novel, Solar, tells the story of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who becomes the public face of the world’s crusade against global warming and who gets caught up in the ensuing controversies, you just have to ask the question with a forced chuckle: “So did you know that something was wrong with the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report on climate change when you were writing this book?” Over the phone line connecting 10 am London to 3.30 pm New Delhi, McEwan’s disembodied voice calmly replies, “No, I didn’t.” After a pause he continues, “But I was following the issue. As for the error in the report on the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers, well, basic procedures like peer reviews had clearly not been enforced.”
So what made the Booker-winning author of such contemporary masterpieces like Enduring Love, Atonement and Chesil Beach decide on having the science of climate change and its accompanying din as the backdrop of this novel? It started in 2005 when he went on a trip to the Arctic as part of a group of writers, artists and scientists to observe climate change ‘first hand’. “Hurtling through the ice on a snow mobile, the idea crossed my mind: how about writing on this big issue of our times?” There was another origin to Solar too.
“I was at a climate change conference in which there were only Nobel Prize-winning scientists. I had never seen so many Nobel laureates in one room. I mean I have met Literature Nobel winners — Seamus Heaney, J M Coetzee... But this was different.”
Thus was born Michael Beard, McEwan’s fictitious Nobel Prize-winning physicist, well past his prime, doing the conference circuit until after some scepticism, he joins the climate change bandwagon to try and recover his spark.
“Science is a mode of knowing the world. It’s a great invention by which to look at the world.” McEwan says he shares his protagonist’s suspicion that “people who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to be of equal value”. Like Einstein, McEwan believes in the world existing independent of the human gaze. “The human condition’s just the wriggling on a pin. The job is to describe the wriggle.”
“I admire those who classify human behaviour. Classification serves a very basic human need. But then there’s also the aesthetics of science, the names. In a different age, people extolled about far-off places. Keats wrote about candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd in The Eve of St Agnes. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Betz’s Law, Nambu Lie 3-algebra, M-theory, Feynman Plaid, there’s beauty in these names. So long as they don’t come in the way of the writing.”
But McEwan’s admiration for the ‘exotic’ and the ‘empirical’ in the sciences doesn’t make him spare savaging the banalities and politics scientists indulge in. “The jealousies, the cabals, it’s all there.” But his satirises “the other side”. He writes in Solar, “This was a postmodern crowd with well-developed antennae for the unacceptable line. Its heart, when not seized by correct utterance from correct quarters, turned cold.” Whether the issue is climate change or genetically modified food, the “atavistic other side” drowns out all rational debate.
“My little dig is about literature studies. I can see a gigantic fraud. Anyone of average intelligence can read novels and get the hang of them. But mastering a whole body of scientific knowledge, it’s like lifting weights. It takes years. I taught students in Caltech recently. They were studying humanities on the side, just to know a bit more about things. And yet people with a humanities degree somehow feel superior, more knowledgable. It’s a giant scam,” quickly adding, “that I’ve been a part of.”
Is he worried that Solar, with its flawed, unprincipled protagonist spearheading a climate change crusade, may turn off some ‘postmodern’ readers? “Oh, I’m sure it will. There’s this consumerist culture that makes today’s readers dislike books with characters who are not like them or don’t share their opinions. It’s a kind of kitsch.”
It almost sounds as if Ian McEwan, in his understated, empirical way is saying: ‘The end of the world is nigh.’