The Sun and Moon Corrupted

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in the Guardian

The Sun and Moon Corrupted
Philip Ball
Portobello, £10.99

The art of novel-writing is knowing what to leave out. In Philip Ball’s tale of a mad Communist physicist, the person sipping in a café might know the whole of relativity, quantum theory, post-war Eastern European history, and the topography of the city beyond the window – not to mention what he had for breakfast. That’s an awful lot needing to be left unsaid.

Ball is a science journalist and non-fiction author of distinction: I very much enjoyed H2O, his “biography of water”, and he won the prestigious Aventis Prize with Critical Mass. So we can be confident that in this, his debut novel, he will get the science right. The hard part is turning the ideas into drama – though Ball’s plot certainly seems to offer it.

Karl Neder is a Hungarian-born dissident in 1980s Bulgaria, desperately trying to publish work on a machine that will produce unlimited energy. His letters to scientific journals show all the hallmark ravings of a crank – yet there is just a chance that he might be on to something. English journalist Lena Romanowicz sets out to find him, and her illegal wanderings in the Eastern Bloc lead her to the scene of the Chernobyl disaster.

Ball neatly captures the tone of scientific correspondence and international conferences, and deftly draws on a long and ignoble tradition of pseudo-science. Neder, like most cranks, is convinced that Einstein was wrong, and that the scientific establishment is persecuting him. The twist is that Neder is being institutionalised for associating with dissident Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov; and even the “respectable” scientists Lena interviews agree that Einstein’s theories are incomplete.

How, though, do you communicate the science, without turning chunks of the novel into mini-lectures? Ball cannot crack that one; instead his characters become repositories of information which they exchange for the reader’s benefit. “Do you know about cosmic rays?” one physicist asks another. “Fermi thinks they are protons whisked up by magnetic fields in space,” is the reply, rather than the more plausible, “Of course I do.”

This problem of relaying information – and an urge to pile in as much as possible – swamps the action. Lena, we learn, is a former Goth with a taste for the occult – she mentions incubuses to boyfriend Davey, who asks how she knows about them. “The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, by John Webster. Sixteen hundred and somety something.” People who talk like that belong in panel games, not novels; the point of the exchange, it turns out, is to tell us that Lena cannot have children, because of Mullerian aplasia.

A scientific omniscience defines the narrative tone: Lena sees an alcoholic drink as “clear liquor that crept up the sides of its small glass under its own superfluid potency,” while the scientists she meets are “unified by forces” she cannot grasp. The metaphors become a cocktail: a whiteboard is “a palimpsest on which eviscerated theories spilled their entrails.”

Davey falls out of the picture; the novel lacks any further love interest, and the only emotion strongly depicted is the pique of neglected geniuses. “Perhaps”, Lena thinks, “the problem here was something to do with the nature of abstraction.” Her observations on physics apply to the narrative itself. “Explanations are fine… But the abstraction of experience just never seems very… convincing.”

The story takes place over many decades and in several countries as back-stories are filled in, yet the focus is always more on fact and explanation rather than experience and perception. One character meets Einstein in 1950s Princeton: the meeting is preceded by a slab of information about Einstein, completely killing the dramatic impact. Sakharov’s walk-on part is similarly sabotaged. Real-life figures abound, as well as some that are harder to judge: I am still not sure whether the “Iain Aitchison” portrayed here has anything to do with the real-life CERN physicist Ian Aitchison.

The book does offer a large supply of intriguing information, for instance about the pseudo-scientist Viktor Schauberger (mentioned only briefly in H2O); or about Paracelsus (subject of Ball’s previous book The Devil’s Doctor). But novels are not made of fact, and Ball’s greatest handicap as a fiction writer is that he is such a good writer of non-fiction.