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Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, Vita Nostra (Harper Voyager, 2018, 416pp, £12.99) and Cixin Liu, Ball Lightning (Head of Zeus, 2018, 384pp, £4.79 [ebook only])

Reviewed by Rachel Cordasco


Vita Nostra is a remarkable example of dark philosophical fantasy and psychological horror. Its simultaneous manipulation of both the reader’s and the main character’s sense of reality is so subtle and even insidious that, by the end of the story, the reader is left wondering where exactly the book ends and ‘real life’ begins. And isn’t that what the best kind of literature is supposed to do?

Vita Nostra is written by the acclaimed Ukrainian-born fantasy authors Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, whose books and stories have been translated into multiple languages. The Dyachenkos’ ability to craft these fantastical texts that blur mundane reality and magic has rightly earned them multiple literary awards, and I have no doubt that Vita Nostra will garner its own share of praise.

Some texts have so many thematic and symbolic layers that their richness can only be unlocked by multiple readings. Such is the case with this book. On the surface, Vita Nostra (Latin for ‘our life’) is the story of Alexandra (Sasha) Samokhina’s spiritual, psychological, emotional and philosophical awakening. The fact that the story starts around Sasha’s 16th birthday is crucial because, as anyone who has gone through the difficult transition from childhood into adulthood knows, it is a time of changing perceptions about the world and about our relationships to others (especially family and friends). Sasha’s trip to the beach with her mother that summer marks the end of her childhood, a terrifying and dizzying experience that leaves the girl unmoored and unsure about her future for the first time in her life. And it all starts with a man who seems to be stalking her, but who ultimately reveals himself to be a kind of spiritual guardian who helps her navigate the path into adulthood and understand her own peculiar brilliance.

This summary reflects the first (or surface) level of meaning. But this is just the beginning of the reader’s journey into Vita Nostra. On another level, the novel explores the concept of the ‘daemon’ or ‘daimon’. For Plato, this figure was a kind of guardian angel, personal companion or guide. Thus Sasha’s apparent stalker, Farit Kozhennikov, becomes a kind of counselor, steering her toward the mysterious Institute of Special Technologies, and watching over her as her professors give her textbooks and assignments that, at first, read like pure gibberish. But Sasha doesn’t do all of this willingly; rather, she is driven by fear for the ones she loves, since Farit makes cryptic and subtle threats about what might happen if she doesn’t do exactly what he tells her to do. The few coincidental medical scares that happen in her family when she does slip up convince her that Farit is manipulating reality to turn her into whatever kind of parahuman she is supposed to become.

Eventually, the Dyachenkos start explaining what kind of texts Sasha is being forced to read, rather than just telling us that the apparent gibberish is slowly changing the structure of her brain. For example, when Sasha begins her second year at the institute, we are told that ‘the new exercises were similar to the old ones, but were substantially more complex. Multilevel transformation of entities, infinitely abstract, that sometimes formed a circle, sometimes compressed to a single point, but always seemed ready at any moment to break through and rip apart the fabric of visualized reality; if these were somebody else’s thoughts, they were so decidedly inhuman that Sasha was simply scared to imagine a brain naturally capable of producing these chimeras. At the same time – Sasha already knew enough to see this – these exercises were astonishingly beautiful in their harmony.’

What does ‘multilevel transformation of entities’ mean? How would one do such a thing? It’s clear that Sasha is supposed to use her thoughts and understanding of spatial structure to ‘manipulate’ reality (here I recall with horror my own efforts to graph integrals in high school calculus), and after a while, she can even draw images that reach beyond the second dimension. It was around this point that I realized what the Dyachenkos were doing to my own brain, forcing me to re-read such passages multiple times in order to glean deeper meaning from the text. In this way, Vita Nostra accomplishes what few other books ever do: performing on the reader that which it performs on the main character. And in a book that is itself about language/meaning/text/words, it’s a masterful manipulation.

With the transformation of Sasha’s mind comes a similar transformation of her body, as scales, wings and other appendages emerge while she becomes more adept at manipulating complex mental structures and traveling through time and dimensions. And while her classmates are undergoing similar transformations, we remain firmly in Sasha’s head at all times, to such an extent that her mother, her step-father, baby brother and lovers, while important characters and crucial in Sasha’s life and to her sense of identity, seem somehow faded. Once again, this mirrors how each of us sees the world, filtered through our single self. It is this idea along with Sasha’s ultimate ability to fly and break though ‘rifts’ in the sky that make us question how reality is ultimately structured for her. Perhaps the Dyachenkos had in mind philosopher George Berkeley’s ideas on idealism and immaterialism, specifically that objects are mind-dependent collections of ideas and exist only because they are perceived. So whether or not Farit and the professors at the institute are angels, alien intelligences or other nonhuman entities, their efforts to help Sasha develop her ability to manipulate and embody language change her mentally and physically, such that she no longer even cares if she is human anymore, or ever was in the first place.

Taking all of this textual manipulation and play into account, the fact that Vita Nostra was itself translated from Russian into English is an admirable feat. Translator Julia Meitov Hersey not only needed to bring the form and spirit of the text into English on a plot and character level, but also transform the nearly-nonsensical sentences that Sasha was reading into similarly nearly-nonsensical sentences in English. Translation is a complicated but rewarding task, but translating a book that is concerned with texts and their effect on the brain and body is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Hersey’s appreciation and enjoyment of this book is clear in her smooth, careful translation. May she translate every single word that the Dyachenkos write.

One of the most philosophically interesting moments in Ball Lightning comes not within the story itself, but in Liu’s afterword. There he confronts the criticism he anticipates from those who expect hard sf to adhere to the fundamental laws of nature as we understand them now. To this, Liu echoes his protagonist by arguing that a strict, literal take on scientific phenomena does a disservice to both science and science fiction:

Science fiction writers may consider many angles on a subject, but they always choose to write about the least likely. [...] So too with this novel, which describes what may be the most outlandish of possibilities, but also the most interesting and romantic. It is purely a creation of the imagination: curved space filled with lightning energy, an incorporeal bubble, an electron the size of a soccer ball. The world of the novel is the gray world of reality […] but within that gray, mundane world something small and surreal drifts by unnoticed, like a speck of dust tumbling out of a dream, suggesting the vast mysteries of the cosmos, the possibility of a world entirely unlike our own.

It is this romantic, curious, awed approach to writing about the invisible world around us that raises Liu above many of his contemporaries. He isn’t afraid to suggest the unimaginable or float the unrealistic.

Liu admits that while he is aware of the science behind the ball lightning phenomenon, and that scientists are probably close to cracking its code, he’s not interested in writing a book about facts and figures. Rather, he wants to strike at the reader’s imagination, and open up a new world of possibilities involving soccer-ball-sized electrons, macro-universes and quantum properties that physicists are still trying to unravel. After all, doesn’t quantum entanglement sound more like science fiction than science? The romantic view of scientific research isn’t a less worthy one, just an alternative.

As with the Three-Body trilogy, which was written after Ball Lightning but published first, the characters themselves are not fully developed and remain somewhat flat. We stay in the main character’s head the entire time, experiencing Chen’s emotional ups and downs as he moves on from his parents’ incineration by ball lightning on the night of his fourteenth birthday to his own research into the secrets of ball lightning, thus coming to terms with the traumatic event that defined his life.

Lightning research brings him into contact with the military and weapons technology. Questions about the ethics of scientific research, its ramifications for humanity, and the geopolitical and technological circumstances that drive its direction start chipping away at Chen’s confidence in the worthy goal of understanding, and perhaps controlling, ball lightning. It’s only when Chen starts collaborating with fellow researchers that his understanding of the phenomenon broadens into a folkloric belief in ‘ghost lanterns’. Furthermore, a photo of a scientist killed by ball lightning, kept by her grieving husband decades after her death, reveals details that, Chen realizes, didn’t even exist when the photo was taken. Scientists focused on hard facts would dismiss ghost lanterns and time-jumping photographs as fantasy, but Chen recognizes that nothing can be discounted in the search for fundamentals about our still-mysterious world.

Chen’s research into locating rather than creating ball lightning leads to the physicist Ding Yi’s revelation that ball lightning is a macro-electron, and that there is an entire macro-world, or even macro-universe, existing simultaneously with our visible universe. We just have to know where and how to look to find such structures. Ding Yi further hypothesizes about the existence of super-observers, or alien intelligences, in an anticipation of the Trisolarans in The Three-Body Problem (2015).

Liu may seem to privilege ideas over characters, but the ways in which his characters engage with those ideas, and use their imagination to solve problems that standard scientific research cannot, enables him to inspire his readers. Liu is aided by his translator, Joe Martinsen, who masterfully transforms Liu’s scientific jargon into an English text that strikes the balance between ideas and emotion. Liu’s skill in merging the romantic and the scientific will most likely garner him many more awards, and we should look forward to his future novels and stories. Such a creative, omnivorous mind can only push us to dream further about the unimaginable.