Review by Clifford Jongko
By Cixin Liu
384 pp. Tor Books.
My favorite kind of science fiction is rooted in real science, a sub-genre known as hard science fiction – think Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, or Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar. So upon reading this book’s synopsis, I was intrigued: ball lightning is a real-life, yet rarely observed, phenomenon described as a floating ball of electricity. While there is recent amateur footage that confirms its existence, the physics behind it remains a mystery – a perfect, plausible starting point for a good science fiction novel.
Cixin Liu’s Ball Lightning is told through the perspective of Chen, a Chinese scientist who lost both parents when he was young. Our introduction to young Chen is also our introduction to the fickle nature of ball lightning: it incinerated Chen’s parents without touching their clothes. This incident became his motivation throughout the story. We see through his eyes as he decides on focusing his studies on ball lightning research. As he makes discoveries and suffers failures, we also meet the other key players: Lin Yun, an amoral army major who is fixated on weapons development, and Ding Yi, an eccentric physicist who helped Chen unlock the mysteries of ball lightning.
Cixin Liu uses the first person narrative to great effect in Ball Lightning. At the beginning of the novel, Chen knows as much about ball lightning physics as the reader does, and together, they peel its mysteries as the story progresses. The first act deals with his struggle in finding answers to a previously unknown field: not many people know about ball lightning, and those who do won’t talk about it. Further events lead Chen through a series of events – including being involved in a vaguely-described war – that ultimately resulted in discoveries that should have remained secret…all this, wrapped in a bittersweet epilogue.
Fans of Cixin Liu’s previous work such as the Three-Body Problem trilogy will be pleased with his combination of hard science fiction and mystery. The titular ball lightning is described in detail, albeit taking some liberties with its physics, such as the way it selectively turns things to ashes: at one point, a notebook was found with alternating burned and intact pages. The use of real-life elements such as SETI@home is a nice touch as well.
The novel is not without its faults: I find more than a few scenes too plot-convenient, even serendipitous, that it took away some of the immersive experience. There is also Chen’s path to discovery, which is told with a heavy hand on scientific jargon. I actually had to make two passes at certain sections just to understand what was going on. Also, it should be noted that the original Chinese text was published in 2004 (this edition is its first English translation) so the lack of wifi-capable computers – or smartphones that can take amateur footage of ball lightning, for that matter – can look out of place for some readers.
So, ultimately, would I recommend Ball Lightning? Absolutely. The unique premise is enough to get you hooked. In fact, it deserves two readings: the first for the fiction, the next for the science.
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Clifford is a freelance content writer and musician who is fueled by caffeine, and has a sizable graphic novel collection thanks to Fully Booked. He is also a connoisseur of bad puns. Follow his graphic novel-centric page/podcast @thoseF_ingnerds on Twitter. Follow his personal Twitter and Instagram account @tapsilogic at your own risk.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]