LONDON — A warming planet, deadlocked politicians, feuding scientists. The headlines about climate change are a source of worry and satisfaction to Ian McEwan.
The British writer's new novel, "Solar," brings the problem of global warming up against the fallibility of human nature, a conflict vividly illustrated by the failure of December's Copenhagen conference and the scandal over leaked e-mails in which climate scientists bad-mouthed rivals and, skeptics say, distorted data to build their case.
It's all evidence, McEwan said, that "science is messy and full of competition and ego and office politics. It's of human matter."
"Solar" centers on Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning but past-his-prime physicist who stumbles on a way of making abundant clean energy that may save the planet. That is, if his own multiplying problems – five ex-wives, a love rival, other scientists, his own gluttony – don't catch up with him first.
McEwan said the character – "a roguish man with his best work behind him" – allowed him to "reflect something of our nature, or the worst side of our nature, grappling with this problem."
"We have witnessed endless conferences on climate change, speeches of exhortation by politicians and others, and yet we go on," he said. "The gap between what we say we want to do and what we do remains more or less constant. There's comedy in that, even though the consequences might be very serious."
Like a lot of people, McEwan has been reading and worrying about climate change for years, without finding a way to use it in a novel.
"It's actually a terrible subject for fiction," said McEwan, sitting in a work shirt and casual cords in the front room of his London home, a high-ceilinged town house on a Georgian square whose former residents include George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf. "It's a subject full of graphs and statistics and hard science and evolving science, overlaid enormously with ideology and politics and then, most killingly, virtue. I couldn't really see a way in."
A breakthrough came when he attended a conference of eminent scientists in Germany.
"Everyone had a Nobel prize," he said. "And hanging out with them, I was quite struck by a couple of things. One was the comedy of such grand figures, 30 of them in a room – it was like 30 kings of Bavaria and Greece and Britain and Brazil all in one room. And also – slightly comic but also probably more tragic – the fact of science is you tend to make your breakthrough discoveries in your youth. These were all very grand figures in tuxedos with their lives largely behind them.
"That was when I thought, if I ever did find my way into the subject, he'll have to have a Nobel prize."
McEwan, 61, is one of Britain's most respected literary novelists, with a precise prose style and an unflinching eye for the psyche's darker corners – grief in "The Child in Time," obsession in "Enduring Love."
He won the Booker Prize in 1998 for "Amsterdam," and was propelled to a new level of fame by "Atonement," his 2001 book about a love affair doomed by war and a child's misunderstanding. Emotional, dramatic and structurally playful, it has sold in the millions. The 2007 film adaptation starring Keira Knightley received seven Academy Award nominations.
Success has made McEwan the kind of writer whose life sometimes makes headlines. In 2006, he faced allegations that he had used details from another book in "Atonement," even though he had freely acknowledged the debt. The next year the media discovered McEwan had a long-lost brother, given up for adoption as a baby by his unmarried parents during World War II. It was, journalists noted in a slew of articles, the kind of thing that might happen in an Ian McEwan novel.
In "Solar," McEwan has Beard experience a media storm after making some rash remarks about why they are so few women in physics.
"It's awful when it happens to you," McEwan said. "It does feel like a storm is blowing through your house. But it stops just like that. You've thought of nothing else for several days, you feel ill with it, and then it goes and you look up bemused. It's a very strange condition. And I can see that for some people it might even get addictive."
Despite its real-life resonances, McEwan insists "Solar" is not an issues novel; at its heart, it's a character study. Beard is a Falstaffian figure who won acclaim for a youthful insight and now drifts along accepting cushy appointments to chair committees, head research institutes and speak at conferences, while lusting after inappropriate women and making halfhearted resolutions to lose weight and get in shape.
Some scientists may be annoyed by the unflattering portrait, but many are amused.
"I laughed a lot," said Philip Diamond, associate director of the Institute of Physics in London, who invited McEwan to visit the building and meet scientists while he was researching the book, and is thanked in the acknowledgments. "He has obviously researched the way science works and the scientific community. It's very nice that although the central character is a bit of a monster, he is a fully rounded character."
Beard is the latest of McEwan's scientist characters, who include Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon protagonist of "Saturday."
"I like the company of scientists," he said. "In the world of journalism and the humanities generally, the default position is cultural pessimism. We always feel that we are living at the end of times. The scientists I meet all say, yes we've got a number of very serious problems. How shall we solve them? I like the way they think that ingenuity could address this and get us out of it."
McEwan remains convinced that the problem of climate change is urgent, that those who deny it have no evidence – though he would be relieved if they were right.
"I'd love to hear that it was all a huge mistake, or that 10,000 peer-reviewing scientists had all got in league in some sinister way, like Freemasons, to hold down their jobs and get grants."
He has not started work on a new novel, although he is working on other projects, including a screenplay based on his last book, "On Chesil Beach," and an opera adaptation of "Atonement" on which he's collaborating with poet Craig Raine and composer Michael Berkeley.
"I need space and time," McEwan said. "I like each novel to be entirely different from the one before, which means becoming a slightly different person, living some life and absorbing more things.
"At the moment, my mind's a blank."