RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Writer Ian McEwan's latest literary effort had an icy beginning. He joined a group of artists and scientists on a weeklong trip to the Arctic, sponsored by a British-based project called Cape Farewell. The idea was to inspire painters, photographers, sculptors, authors, even dancers, to think about climate change.
And it was a small insight McEwan had during that voyage that led him to write his latest novel, "Solar."
As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, it's an irreverent take on a serious issue.
LYNN NEARY: The first thing you notice about the Arctic, says Ian McEwan, is the cold. Once you get past that, you're ready to take in the landscape, which is like no other.
In a BBC documentary about the Cape Farewell journey, McEwan spoke about the striking beauty of the frozen north.
Mr. IAN McEWAN (Author, "Solar"): Extraordinary formations of sedimentary rock around the fjord, and this curious (unintelligible) dark shape. Simple things like the music of all ice and snow under your boots.
NEARY: But McEwan was struck by something else during his week aboard the ship - that even the best of intentions can go awry in the hands of human beings.
Over dinner one night he told his shipments that the chaos that had overtaken the room where all their gear was stored seemed a perfect metaphor for human frailty.
Mr. McEWAN: All it needs is one mistake, and then there's a domino effect of someone saying, well, damn it, you know, I'll take those boots because someone took my boots.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. McEWAN: And you actually have a social contract in total collapse. The boot room now is just a scene of total lack of cooperation. Environmentalists who care about the planet can't even get their boots together.
NEARY: Before going to the Arctic, McEwan had been interested in the issue of climate change, but couldn't figure out a way to write a novel about it without sounding too preachy. Something about the disarray in the ship's boot room gave him an idea.
Mr. McEWAN: And it seemed to strike a chord with a lot else that I'd understood about climate science, the politics of it and human institutions - that 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 was at least, it gave me the first suspicion that maybe the route into this was through comedy, a comedy of human nature.
NEARY: That boot room scene eventually made its way into McEwan's new novel, "Solar." His main character, Michael Beard, takes a similar journey to the Arctic. Beard doesn't really care that 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 finds that messy boot room irritating.
Mr. McEWAN: That morning, he saw several snowmobile suits also on the floor. They had a trampled appearance and he decided - without looking too closely -that none could be his.
Picket admitted to him, while they were out recording the sound of the wind in the ship's rigging, that for two days he had been wearing two left boots. But he was a hardy sort who did not seem to mind. Beard did mind.
NEARY: Beard is invited on the Arctic journey because he's 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.
Mr. McEWAN: And I have never been in a room bristling with such powerful egos. 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.
NEARY: Michael Beard may have the towering ego of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, but he is also deeply flawed. A womanizer who has cheated on each of his many 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 on by a bizarre accident that offers him an opening to steal someone else's ideas.
Beard, says McEwan, represents all of us at our worst.
Mr. McEWAN: He's somewhat lazy, rather greedy. Full of resolutions to give up eating junk food and lose weight and get fit. 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.
NEARY: 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.
Mr. McEWAN: It's interesting to have such a wildly erroneous guy at the center of things. 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, which I think would be awfully dull. But it meant I could have a sideswipe at a few other things along the way, like the British press. It gave me a sort of freedom to just lash out a bit.
NEARY: McEwan is probably best known for his novel "Atonement," which was set mostly in the past. But "Solar" and his recent novel "Saturday," both take place in the present and explore the anxieties of our post-9/11 world.
Mr. McEWAN: The present is always very noisy and contentious. And we all have a very different view of the present, and a slightly more coherent and generally more sort of 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 on the present, and it's much more lively.
NEARY: 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.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: Read a bit more of Michael Beard's adventures in the Arctic and a review of Ian McEwan's new novel, "Solar," at our Web site, NPR.org.