BOOK REVIEW: Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu (translated by Joel Martinsen)

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Publisher: Head of Zeus

Series: Standalone (ish)

Genre: Hard SF (ish)

Pages: 479

Publication Date: 09/08/2018 (Chinese Edition 2004)

Verdict: 4/5

When Chen witnesses a natural phenomenon kill his parents on his fourteenth birthday, he knows it will change his life. Little does he realise how much his obsession with ball lightning will change the world . . .

Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem/Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is undoubtledy one one of the milestone pieces of SF in the twenty-first century. As well as beng multi-award winning, it’s also one of my all-time favourite series. His Wandering Earth anthology is also mind-bogglingly brilliant, and so Ball Lightning has a lot to live up to. While it doesn’t wuite live up to those lofty expectations, it’s still an amazing read.

Ball Lightning is an odd book. Theoretically a standalone, it can also serve as a prequel to The Three-Body Problem, though reading that is by no means necessary. In fact, Ball Lightning was released first, even if it is only now getting an English translation. But that’s not all that make sit unusual. You see, there’s not all that much in the way of plot going on here. Yes, things happen, and events occur. There’s conflict and relationships and all you’d expect from one of China’s most famous SF writers. But the forward momentum is off-kilter, disjointed.

Chen’s sole motivation is: learn about the ball lightning phenomenon. That simple desire is what drives the novel. But while there are a series of remarkable discoveries in that field, there’s not much of an actual story going on. Every discovery is met with excitement, and then the realisation that Chen wishes to know more. His obsession is fascinating, as are the scientific discussions. But even by my infodump-loving standards, the text feels a little dry.

Perhaps this is because of the translation. Martinsen is a great translator (he worked on Liu’s The Dark Forest, my favourite part of the previous trilogy) but I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to render the philosophical and scientific debates here into readable English. There’s nothing objectively wrong with any of it, it just fells off.

The author’s afterword tells us something many will already have guessed. That real-world science has outpaced the discoveries of the book, and that ball lightning is not remotely as depicted in the narrative. Despite this, I think it’s safe to call this a Hard SF novel. Not because of the rigour or authenticity, but because it is a book about science. About how people relate to it, and how we twist cold facts to suit our own ends. While the novel is set almost entirely in China, it’s easy to see how military experts of all nations would make the same choices if faced with the same criteria.

It’s that love affair with even the more out-there science that Liu does so well. Just as previous books have tackled universal metaphysics and the nature of dimensions, here he takes something as deceptively simple as atomic structure and turns it completely on its head. Even though I know for a fact that the science is wrong, it’s impossible not to be swept along by the narrative. Though at times it can read like an academic text, it’s never any worse for that.

So this is not on quite the same level as The Three-Body Problem, but it is close. All of Liu’s hallmarks are here, and so is a great book. If not a great story.

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