Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu translated by Joel Martinsen (book review).

Another of renowned Chinese author Cixin Liu’s novels has been translated for our enjoyment by Joel Martinsen in the form of ‘Ball Lightning’, a hard-SF, physics-based tale of obsession, complicated mathematics and the force of nature. As soon as I started reading, I recalled the curiously formal tone of Cixin Liu’s work, which initially may seem somewhat dry but quickly becomes perfectly normal and even authoritative. The characters often talk in formal language, often expressing grandiose ideas or complex scientific concepts but in a way that soon draws you into their lives and culture.

After the scene-setting introduction in which young Chen’s parents are killed by ball lightning and thus set him on his compulsive life course to investigate the strange phenomenon, the novel follows the seemingly-mundane story of Chen’s education and everyday life for a while. He goes to university, meets people and does some research. The epic ‘Three-Body Trilogy’ started in much the same way. I knew that things would change for Chen soon, even though I couldn’t see much exciting potential in ball lightning. I was right. Cixin Liu has this marvellous ability to introduce totally unexpected yet profoundly logical consequences and ideas in chapter after chapter so that, just when you think you know where the book is going, you turn another page and find yourself turning another corner into somewhere stranger and more outlandish than you could ever have imagined.

The main characters included the narrator, Chen, along with physicist Ding Li and army scientist Lin Yun, all of whom are researchers and engineers rather than action-hero types. Lin Yun has rather a dark streak, which initially attracts Chen but her complex personality makes her a fascinating character to follow as her obsession and ruthlessness alternately help and hinder Chen’s research into, first of all, understanding ball lightning and then creating practical applications for both military and civilian use. Chen himself is conflicted, having witnessed his parents’ death that lead to his obsession, he has an aversion to lethal applications of his discoveries. The story takes detours into other branches of research and other applications, but always with the brooding menace of war fermenting in the background.

Although I described the book at the beginning as hard SF, it doesn’t fly off into complex and mind-blowing physics and esoteric explanations. Although we’re aware that the scientists are doing this in the background, the story itself is grounded in familiar-seeming reality. The scientific advances and the drama surrounding many of them are episodes that punctuate Chen’s life and his complex relationships with those around him. It’s a slow-burning tale of how ball lightning and their surprising discoveries profoundly affect the lives of those involved. There was not the sweeping scale of Cixin Liu’s later ‘Three Body Trilogy’ (later when published originally although translated into English first), but this is nonetheless an effective and fascinating glimpse into Chinese Science Fiction and Cixin Liu’s marvellous imagination.

Gareth D Jones

July 2018

(pub: Head Of Zeus. 384 page hardback. Price: £18.99. ISBN: 978-1-78669-468-3)

pub: TOR/Forge. 384 page hardback. Price: $28.99 (US) $37.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-94707-1)

check out websites: www.headofzeus.com and www.tor.com


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