Impressions of “Ball Lightning,” by Cixin Liu

Ball Lightning is a science fiction novel by Cixin Liu set in the contemporary world. It is loosely connected to the author’s “Three Body” trilogy of Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, and like those books is enriched by a Chinese author’s story being told largely in China. But the story does not depend on those connections, and the events in Ball Lightning do not provide much depth to the events in that trilogy. Ball Lightning succeeds in three areas: discussion of the real phenomenon of ball lightning, a fun description of the highs and lows of scientific discovery, and a meditation on the interdependence of defense research and new technologies.

But before that, some brief criticisms. I enjoyed Ball Lightning and recommend it, but as with “Three Body” the focus is definitely on science and its implications, not characters. All characters tend to be two-dimensional, with simple motivations. No character changes much or discovers more about themselves. They are tropes, but tropes well used to tell an interesting “hard science” fiction story.

I am interested in ball lightning. That comes back to two family members, who did not like each other and often undercut each other, who both reported seeing a silent, very bright, ball of light at the same place in time. (The same episode lead to my interest in UFOs, as described in my UFO theory). I did not know before reading Ball Lightning that the phenomenon was no longer considered to be paranormal: it was recorded by scientific equipment in China! Ball lightning discoveries have been scientifically published (Cen et al, 2014). This is mentioned in-book, and I was as pleasantly surprised it really happened. Nevertheless, the actual composition, nature, and source of ball lightning are unknown, and Liu develops (and has characters either support or contest) a number of interesting hypotheses.

Liu goes one step farther, describing not just specific theories but different methods of implementing research. Characters defend, attack or practice theoretical and empirical research, civilian and military research, and even “mechanistic” and non-mechanistic research. The last category appears to relate to Marxist theory as applied by the Soviet Union, and is a reminder that the Cultural Revolution and our own politically correct eras are not the only where science is infected by political fashion. A large variety of defense research methods are described, ranging from the lone “mad” inventor to computer systems espionage to corporate work.

A fascinating, if short, involves the main character’s trip to the United States. Without giving way plot points, the themes of low-trust bargaining, surprise attacks, coded messages, and mutually assured destruction, all familiar from The Dark Forest, make a reappearance. They feel like good friends.

In the afteward Liu states that Ball Lightning is a traditional Chinese-style science fition story, focused on the invention of a technology itself, as opposed to a western science fiction story, focused on the societal consequences of the invention (The “Three Body” series is, by this definition, western). As I look over the western science fiction I’ve reviewed on this blog — A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Accidental Time Machine, The Difference Engine, and “The Frozen Sky” — I do see this pattern.

I listened to Ball Lightning in the audible edition.