The pull of destruction

Tickling the Dragon by Ruth Brandon Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99; E Jane Dickson is left breathless by an atomic debut

The atom bomb is the Faustian metaphor par excellence. Graphic, grandiose and discrete, its image hangs over the century like a hazard warning for over-ambitious novelists. But in a week when you thought every conceivable angle on the A-bomb had been covered, Ruth Brandon's novel, Tickling the Dragon, sparks new doubts. Brandon's theme is the irresistible glamour of pure science. Her Faust is Dr Zsygmond von Fischer, a Hungarian- Jewish physicist closely involved with the development of the bomb at Los Alamos in 1945. "Zigi'' is seduced, not by the usual Mephistophelean inducements of power and prestige, but by the intrigue of maths and matter, the thrill of numbers when they come out right. He also believes, in common with many of his Middle European colleagues, that the US is developing the bomb to hold as the ultimate deterrent against the Nazis. When it becomes clear that America has other tricks up its sleeve, Zigi quits the Manhattan Project (as the top-secret operation was known) and becomes a figurehead of the anti-nuclear movement. Or so it seems. Enter Miriam, the fond niece of Von Fischer, commissioned to write his posthumous biography. Miriam's day job is writing detective novels and her researches into Von Fischer's past unearth disturbing truths about her uncle, herself, and the unappeasable appetite of the intellect.

Best known as the author of several acclaimed biographies including Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt and last year's runaway life of Houdini, Brandon is adept at inspiring historical fact with a sense of urgency. Tickling the Dragon, her first foray into mainstream fiction, is a spirited attempt to fuse several genres (biography, whodunit, Bildungsroman) into an all-singin', all-dancin' production. But despite a likeable compulsion to rationalise the process as she goes along (" In the long run, what's the difference between a fictional character and one who really existed? ... Isn't Anna Karenina, in the long run, more real than Tolstoy?"), the different strands of Brandon's style keep unravelling. Great tracts of fact are dropped as from a great height on to the narrative, with an inevitable slackening in momentum; her characters, fixed in a tight configuration of real time and circumstance, never quite achieve the autonomy, the straining at the confines of the story, that is the mark of convincing fiction.

For all this, Brandon, in any of her stylistic guises, remains a terrifically engaging voice. Her willingness to try out opinions and morals from different standpoints is exhilarating. If you never quite understand, you will at least believe in the pulling power of mathematics once you have read this book. For Zigi and his elite brethren, "only the words and descriptions of God in his various forms seemed to approach the awe and terror of E = mc2".

Above all, it is a cautionary tale of brinkmanship. The dragon of the title refers to an experiment conducted at Los Alamos known as "tickling the dragon's tail''. In order to find out how much uranium was needed to produce a self-sustaining chain reaction, near-critical masses of the metal were assembled by hand, bit by tiny bit. A flake too far, and the whole thing exploded in your face. Spanning the decades from Hiroshima to Reagan's Star Wars programme and the Reykjavik summit, Brandon presents the nuclear arms race and decommissioning programme as a terrifying game of Jack Straws played out by fractious, fumbling children. It may not be the Great Nuclear Novel, but it is a book to make you hold your breath.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders