Cixin Liu, Ball Lightning (Head of Zeus, 2018, 384pp, £4.79 [ebook only])

Reviewed by Rachel Cordasco


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.