Review: Ball Lightning

Posted: September 11, 2018 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Cixin Liu, Science Fiction
Ball Lightning

You’re probably going to do this anyways, so instead of leaving halfway through the review I’ll suggest now that you type ‘ball lightning’ into Youtube/Wikipedia and get it out of your system.

Pretty weird, huh?

Alright, back to the review.

If Cixin Liu’s name sounded familiar to you a few years ago, it might have been because you were following the speculative fiction scene in China, where Liu has won multiple Galaxy and Xingyun Awards (equivalent to winning multiple Hugos and Nebulas, respectively).

If Liu’s name sounds familiar to you now, it’s probably because he was the first Chinese author to win a Hugo award for his novel THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, the first book in The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy.

BALL LIGHTNING is Liu’s most recent offering to be published in the US, although it was originally published over a decade ago (2005) in China. Similar to THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, BALL LIGHTNING focuses on a strange phenomenon that lacks a fulfilling explanation and then explores where this strangeness meets the boundaries of the ordinary.

The novel follows the life of Chen, whose traumatic childhood encounter with ball lightning begins his single-minded, obsessive quest to discover more about it. Over the course of the novel, Chen joins forces with Lin Yun, an incredible engineer and weapons expert, and Ding Yi, a brilliant physicist, to study and weaponize this force of nature.

When they discover the true nature of ball lightning and the possibility of its weaponization, only Chen seems to grapple with his own difficult feelings of complicity, while Ding Yi and Lin Yun’s amoral views urge them forward. While going into any details of their discovery would give away too much, Liu presents a premise that made me want to keep reading.

Although Liu’s ideas are interesting, the narrative itself may feel like a bit of a slog for some readers. BALL LIGHTNING is, in part, a novel invested in exploring the junctures of science and the human imagination; however, it is also interested in the more mundane conflict between science and bureaucracy. Readers simultaneously explore the ideas behind quantum physics and then spend pages reading about the on-again, off-again funding patterns of the Chinese military.

Chen’s character is wooden and feels almost roughly sketched. To readers of Liu’s other books, this will not come as a surprise. Liu is intensely focused on ideas, not characters, and Chen exists purely to relay information and ideas. In fact, several chapters at the end of the novel are simply a friend offering Chen a blow-by-blow account of what happened once he dropped out of a certain project.

Indeed, while each character in the novel is motivated by an intense obsession, Liu is not interested in plumbing the consequences of their obsessions in a meaningful way–instead, the various obsessions of the characters stand in for real character development, a touchstone that Liu can refer to at appropriate moments.

BALL LIGHTNING also shares a certain formality of tone with Liu’s earlier work. When I first read THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, I wondered if the stilted writing might be an effect of the translation, but I now believe it is instead part of Liu’s style. Part of this stiffness may be attributed to the fact that Liu’s characters tend to be highly academic. However, I suspect that a large part of the stiltedness comes from Liu himself. While this tone was part of what made it difficult for me to initially “get into” THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, I found myself falling more easily into the story this time with that expectation in my head.

In the Afterword to BALL LIGHTNING, Cixin Liu locates his novel within the genre of the “invention story” (p. 382). This, in part, explains the narrowness of focus as Liu follows certain conventions that the reader may not be aware of. However, he says that his work breaks from the traditional format of Chinese speculative fiction with his own “flights of fancy” (p. 383).

It is these very flights of fancy that will appeal most to readers. Liu’s novels are at once singularly focused and wildly expansive as he takes readers from the mundane to the quantum realm and back again. The supernatural is the natural in Liu’s novels–the inexplicable and the eerie are simply elements that science has yet to explain, although even those scientists on the cutting edge may find it difficult to fight instinct with explanation.

Overall, BALL LIGHTNING is a flawed but ultimately intriguing novel. While you might have to slog through some sections, Liu’s imagination and the technologies he invents were enough for me to keep turning pages and lovers of hard sci-fi will find it enjoyable.

So, should you read it? My response is: Reader, know thyself.

  • Recommended Age: 14+
  • Language: None
  • Violence: Some people are inevitably incinerated
  • Sex: None

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