Review of Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu
Chen’s fourteenth birthday is upended by a severe storm in which his parents are disintegrated by a manifestation of ball lightning. Traumatized and orphaned, Chen is also resolved to learn all he can about ball lightning in the hopes that he can understand, predict, and control the natural force that remains mysterious and largely unexplored. In the course of his studies and theoretical modeling, he meets Lin Yun, a Chinese Army major who is fascinated by experimental and unconventional weapons. She encourages and secures help for Chen, hoping his ball lightning research leads to a new type of weaponry. Working together, they make great strides in the science, especially after visiting a Cold War era Soviet facility that also researched ball lightning and its potential as a weapon. Chen fears his life’s work will be meaningless, but while watching a lighthouse, he has an insight that changes his thinking about the nature of ball lightning. He and Lin Yun recruit the help of the renegade physicist Ding Yi, and together they discover macro-atomic particles. Chen, however, becomes disillusioned by the goals and attitudes of the others and leaves the project. When China goes to war, he is disheartened to discover how his research has helped develop ball lightning weapons, resulting in destruction and chaos he wanted to combat thought his greater knowledge and scientific discovery. When a catastrophic accident cripples China, Chen learns the disaster was precipitated by Lin Yun attempting to use an experimental ultimate weapon based in part on his research. In the aftermath, Chen witnesses the international shift in priorities and values as he also transitions to a life more about being in the present rather than having his life dominated by past trauma or future expectations.
Thematically, this is a novel of obsession. This idea is present even before the appearance of the ball lightning, as Chen’s father gives a birthday speech about dedicating one’s self wholeheartedly to a single problem (10-11). Many of the characters are also motivated by fixation on a particular topic: Chen and Zhang Bin with ball lightning, Lin Yun with weapons, and Ding Yi with theoretical physics. Readers should be clued in to the tragic undercurrent of the book since all of these characters have experienced significant loss, and especially when visiting Russia, hearing from Alexander Gemow about Soviet research into ball lightning, and the personal and professional toll it took on everyone involved (116-26). These characters can be added to the pantheon of literary characters undone by their own obsessions. Captain Ahab destroys himself, his ship, and his crew in his monomaniacal desire for revenge against a whale that cannot understand or appreciate Ahab’s obsession. Victor Frankenstein is relentless in his attempt to reverse death, only to be destroyed by the reanimated creation he abandoned. Chen is aware of the danger of his situation. He protests the military applications of his research, but when he sees the resources they can offer him, he comments, “I had discovered how weak moral constraints seemed when you crave something” (103). His obsessions can be manipulated in the service of others for ends he might not want. Chen’s concern only grows over time, amplified when Ding Yi explains to him that in regards to physical laws, human life is insignificant (222). Ding Yi’s perspective is amoral, fixated on advancing knowledge and understanding without much consideration of the personal, ethical, or social effects of those discoveries. When Chen tries to use his research and scientific mind for projects that cannot be weaponized, another scientist tells him that he’s being naïve and “the scalpel can kill, too” (258). Chen must reconcile that all his work can be either beneficial or destructive to human life, depending on how his research is implemented. He is reminded of this by an American scientist, Dr. Ross, who tells him, “Swords can be made into plowshares […] But some plowshares can be cast back into swords. Weapons researchers like us sometimes have to accept blame and loss for this in the course of carrying out our duties” (273). Accepting this situation becomes a point for Chen. He could prepare himself for the possibility of harming his own life and wellbeing with his obsession, but being responsible for causing harm to others disturbs him deeply.
You’ve Been Thunderstruck
The novel is a work of hard science-fiction, in some ways reminiscent of Golden Age science-fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke. The main characters are scientists and engineers, trying to solve problems and advance human understanding of the natural world. The focus on scientific principles and theories could prove problematic to readers not familiar with meteorology, advanced mathematics, electrical engineering, Schrödinger's cat, or quantum physics. This is to say nothing about the explanations for the scientific discoveries made over the course of the novel, such as macro-atomics. The fidelity to detail and accuracy with science doesn’t always apply to developing character. There are many occasions where characters do not talk the way anyone would expect a human being to talk, or they might monologue at length. This doesn’t seem to be a function of personality, as not all of the characters are intense introverts or lacking in social skills. For sizable stretches the writing seems dry, and the plot can come across as narratively flat because for several developments, Chen is told about them after the fact rather than being present for them.
Quantum Probability State
Cixin Liu’s Ball Lightning is a solid piece of hard science-fiction, and it should be of interest to fans of the form. In the afterword, the author writes briefly about how he thinks about the novel in context of Chinese and Western science-fiction traditions.
Liu, Cixin. Ball Lightning. Translated by Joel Martinsen, Tor, 2018.
© 2019 Seth Tomko