In this scientific thriller (Everything’s Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology, 2003, etc.) a laboratory in Texas working to harness fusion energy must deal with sabotage from a rival lab—or possibly someone closer to home.
When a Controlled Fusion Research Center (CFRC) demonstration publicly fails at sustaining fusion for energy, physicist Nathaniel Machuzak is appointed acting director, partially because during the test the current director was electrocuted. Nathaniel and his colleague Slava suspect sabotage from their European competitor, International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)—both labs are in a race to convert fusion into usable energy. Rothman’s novel is filled with scientific discussions on everything from the equipment used to the different types of fusion, like cold or laser, complete with corresponding jargon. But Rothman turns all of it, even a convoluted conspiracy, into a diverting, worthwhile story. The terminology is adequately explained without pretension, largely thanks to T.J. D’Abro, a female cop Nathaniel hires to work security and investigate the sabotage. She acts as both a potential romantic interest for the physicist and a repository for lay terms; for instance, she equates a pool break shot with particle accelerators. Often, the story alternates between past and present tense, sometimes in the same scene, which can be disorienting. The result is something that can read like an online game in play: “At this point Nathaniel feels blocked and remains silent”—fitting, since the cybertaunting mole might be hiding inside avatars within a roleplaying game called “The Real World.” Nathaniel falls prey to bouts of paranoia—he only seems to trust Slava and T.J.—but he seems right, since the shiftiest characters tend to be indisputably villainous: Cyrus, the previous director, who had been monitoring CFRC employees’ Internet usage; Balard, the ITER director, with obvious animosity toward all things CFRC; Senator Whitman, who openly challenges the financial strategy at Fusion Center; and Moravec, the GlobeTex chief executive officer and CFRC’s principal investor, whose limited, virtual appearances in “The Real World”—both as a male and female—suggest androgyny and omniscience. When the pervasive threat of sabotage insinuates itself into the ranks, even Nathaniel and Slava are not immune to allegations.
Intelligent in its technical details, but also refined and delightfully complex in its storytelling.