The Sun and Moon Corrupted, by Philip Ball

Science fiction that lacks a proper formula
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Philip Ball is one of the smartest science writers working in Britain. He is prolific, and there is nothing he seems not to know: physics and chemistry are his specialities, but he's no slouch at biology. The Self-Made Tapestry, a masterpiece about pattern formation from 1999, straddles the art/science divide.

Now he has written a novel, set in the 1980s, in which several quests intertwine. Dr Karl Neder is a maverick Hungarian physicist who believes that Einstein's theory of relativity is wrong and that the dream of the perpetuum mobile – motion and energy for nothing – is possible. Lena, a waif of a journalist, is trying to get the story on this elusive man. This is played out against the backdrop of the Cold War and its nuclear driving force.

The portrayal of science and science journalism will tickle insiders and raise eyebrows for the rest. This is the lowdown on scientific conferences: "Her initial impression of hopeless disparity among the attendees was giving way to a realisation that the conference was as much a celebration of a subculture as an assault on relativity." Lena is a sympathetic, well-drawn character, but Neder is the stereotypical mad scientist, writing crazy letters in an unconvincing pidgin English.

Neder's perpetual-motion quest metamorphoses into something more alchemical, with the implied justification that atomic physics is modern alchemy, transmuting one element into another. The book lacks focus, packing too many of Ball's pet themes into one novel. What in his non-fiction is a virtue – his encyclopedic thoroughness – in a novel is a vice. One can't help feeling that the book veers from physics to chemistry because Ball is equally conversant with both. To flesh out the Cold War background, he also feels compelled to weave into the plot many touchstones of the past 50 years, from the 1956 Hungarian Uprising to Chernobyl.

Novels that convey the reality of science as a human activity are rare. Ball has it in him to write such a book, and for many pages I felt he might pull it off. Despite some longueurs, puzzles about its focus, and the loss of the anchoring protagonist for 70 pages, I was gripped and entertained for much of the journey. Eastern Europe is richly evoked – from Vienna to Russia – but, in the closing sequence, the book topples into the melodramatic scenarios of a delirious Gypsy detective trail through the badlands of Eastern Europe.