Book Review: Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)
Science Fiction: Ball Lightning, Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)
The day Chen turned fourteen his life changed forever. As his family celebrated, a storm struck the family’s house. A ball of lightning came in, destroying his t-shirt but leaving him uninjured and his other clothes intact. Food in the freezer was cooked and hot, but the freezer itself was unaffected. Tragically, his parents were turned to ash in front of his eyes. This horrific event set the course for the rest of Chen’s life: he became obsessed with studying ball lightning.
His study of ball lightning guided his studies at the university and led him after graduation to working with a beautiful female army major, whose own obsession with weapons research shaped the direction of their work. A theoretical physicist with no moral boundaries became the third member of their team. Together they discovered how to find and use ball lightning. Together they also realized that science without boundaries can have terrible and unintended results.
Ball Lightning was originally published in Chinese in 2005, but the English translation only came out in the fall of 2018. Author Liu Cixin (family name listed first here in the Chinese manner) is riding a wave of international attention after becoming the first writer from Asian to win the Hugo Award. His Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy garnered him that Hugo win and a Nebula nomination for the first of the series, The Three-Body Problem, and a Locus Award for the trilogy’s conclusion, Death’s End. (Both of those were translated by science fiction writer Ken Liu–no relation to the author.) Liu has also won the Galaxy Award, the top Chinese science fiction award, for best writer an amazing eight times! I suspect we will see more of Liu’s back catalog get translated into English and other languages as his fame spreads.
Chen is the ethical center of the trio studying ball lightning. Often conflicted about the work they are doing, largely because of his own tragic experience with the phenomenon, he leaves the project more than once but gets pulled back through his own loyalty to his friends and his country and through his own obsession with the object that changed his life. Chen ultimately discovers that ball lightning is not something that needs to be created. Rather, it is something that exists naturally but is typically harmless. When it is excited electrically, though, it has potentially devastating consequences.
When Chen does finally leave the project, he goes into research that has nothing to do with weapons or war. His work on tornadoes receives international attention: he is honored as an honorary citizen of Oklahoma City because of his work that allows precise prediction of tornadoes. But when war breaks out between the US and China, he comes to realize that even the best of research can have unexpected implications. And when his former colleagues take the ball lightning research to the next level, the results could be catastrophic for the entire planet.
Liu’s combination of hard science fiction and ethical quandaries makes for a fascinating exploration of human nature and the nature of wartime ethics. Just as Chen is shaped by the deaths of his parents, his colleague Lun Yun is shaped by the death of her mother from a novel wartime weapon in a previous conflict. She is not without ethics, but her desire is to make sure no other Chinese girls lose their mothers the way she lost hers. If that means creating an ultimate weapon, she is OK with that so long as it is deployed by China and not by their enemies.
It’s perhaps either a cliche or a truism (or both) that there are no good or evil tools. A scalpel can be a lifesaver in the hands of a surgeon or a life-ender in the hands of a murderer. When those tools are in the hands of scientists and soldiers, the implications may extend beyond individual lives and affect the lives of millions.
I suppose the same could be said for writers and words. When the writer is as gifted as Liu Cixin and the result is a novel as profound as Ball Lightning, the effect on the reader is likely to be profound.