Cixin Liu’s Ball Lightning comes to America, translated by Joel Martinsen, after the publication of his science fiction trilogy that began with the Hugo Award-winning The Three-Body Problem. Recently translated from the original Chinese, Ball Lightning serves as a sort of prequel with the introduction of Ding Yi who only appears as a minor character here, and also of the aliens. That shouldn’t serve as a spoiler for Ball Lightning though. Ball Lightning brings readers to the career of Chen, a scientist obsessed with the phenomenon in the title after it claims the lives of his parents.
As usual, Liu’s writing is heavy on the science with a little dash of fiction. Nobody praises the god of science here, but rather the characters use it as a tool in pursuit of a potentially horrifying weapon. Furthermore, the enchantment of scientific wonder causes Chen, Ding Yi, and Lin Yun, the army major who’s far out of either of their leagues, to cross moral boundaries as they try to recover from lost loved ones by shrouding themselves in work. For Chen, the pursuit of ball lightning begins when he loses his parents. Even though he pretends not to miss them, finding out what happened to them drives his entire life. Along the way he discovers that his academic mentor, Zheng Bin, researches ball lighting because he lost wife in accident involving ball lightning. Chen begins working with Lin Yun, whose mother was killed in battle by experimental bees, because the army wants to develop guns that shoot lightning. And they do! Chen and Lin Yun shoot tanks with lightning helicopters and figure out how to send balls of lightning that instantly incinerate troops rocketing through enemy lines.
If you’re shouting at your computer screen, “But, wait, that’s not how lightning works” then I need you to wait, and read this book, because that’s where Ding Yi comes in. Ding Yi’s theoretical chops carry the story over the pages full of soldiers and explosions into the larger realm of quantum physics and macro-atomic particles. The fantastic physics of this book appeal to anyone who (not-so)secretly loved school.
However, most of the conflict comes from people who want Chen to study a different field, rather than real threats to his person. He even travels to Oklahoma to win an award just before a certain superpower who shall not be named starts a war with China. Really, the book doesn’t say who, but it’s easy to expound upon. Now, Chen does get his comeuppance when he realizes that he accidentally gave the Americans the weapon that would let them win the war, but it’s too late in the story to reveal a ton about his character.
Liu’s prose does stray into moments of poetry and beauty, but mostly it stays spare and utilitarian, in order to hurry up and get to the cool explosions and weapons. The story features cool science writing in spades, but as far as novels go, it doesn’t really reinvent the wheel. It serves either as a perfect introduction to one of the genre’s rising stars or an addition to the collection of Cixin Liu fans
Three out of five stars
Number of pages: 380
Favorite quote: “When I realized that the weapons systems I’d developed could be used to benefit society, I felt a joy I’d never had before.”