Ball Lightning is a gripping tale of obsession from the biggest name in Chinese sci-fi

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In 2015, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Physique Drawback (translated into English by Ken Liu), earned science fiction’s highest honor: the Hugo Award for Finest Novel. The award was the primary for a Chinese language writer, and put Liu within the world highlight. Sequels to that novel, The Darkish Forest and Dying’s Finish, additionally acquired widespread acclaim, and now, Liu has a brand new e book out in English: Ball Lightning, translated by Joel Martinsen. Like The Three-Physique Drawback, it’s a gripping story of know-how and physics, one which explores the character of obsession and the darkish locations it may possibly lead.

Spoilers for the novel forward.

As a narrative, Ball Lightning is a little more of a grounded learn than The Three-Physique Drawback. There are not any aliens on this story, which follows the lifetime of a younger man named Chen who watches as each of his mother and father are incinerated by a phenomenon referred to as ball lightning. Their deaths frames the path of the remainder of his life. Haunted by the reminiscence of his useless mother and father, he obsesses over the unusual incident, going to college to be taught every little thing he can about ball lightning.

Picture: Tor Books

He lives out an remoted existence, placing every little thing apart in pursuit of his obsession, and ultimately meets Lin Yun, an Military officer who works in an experimental weapons division, who additionally has a fascination with the phenomenon: she needs to be taught every little thing concerning the unbelievable power not within the pursuit of data, however to put it to use as a weapon.

With their mutual pursuits, the pair fall into acquainted firm: Liu takes them to the stays of a Soviet weapons manufacturing facility, the place they meet a disillusioned weapons scientist who misplaced every little thing in his pursuit of data. Chen has a realization that maybe he’s thrown his life away in a fruitless pursuit, however after a revelation, throws himself again into research. He and his fellow scientists understand that they’ve stumbled upon a brand new, basic nature of actuality: ball lightning doesn’t seem randomly, however consists of macro-elements: large, unseen electrons that seems when the circumstances line up completely.

As in The Three-Physique Drawback, Liu’s journey is specified by a principally chronological, straight-forward means. Readers uncover revelations alongside the characters, with loads of detours for scientific rationalization, or backtracking to cowl the precise historical past for a personality. Ball Lightning does’t fairly attain the lofty heights that The Three-Physique Drawback. Joel Martinsen’s translation is flatter and extra passive, and the principle character by no means fairly involves phrases with the dying of his mother and father in a means that leaves the story feeling barely incomplete.

Ball Lightning showcases the inherent risks in creating superior weapons with experimental science and know-how.

As an alternative, Liu focuses much less on exploring his characters’ private points and extra on their obsession with ball lightning. Chen and Lin are introduced collectively by almost equivalent circumstances: Chen is drawn into his research to try to uncover why his mother and father died in such a horrific method, whereas the dying of Lin’s mom leads her down the trail to weapons analysis, as she tries to develop a breakthrough know-how that might save different lives down the highway. In each, we see the damaging qualities that their obsessions generate. Lin is reckless, promoting prototype weapons to different nations and disregarding the protection of the individuals beneath her command. Chen’s fixation is rather less harmful, nevertheless it leaves him an remoted, with little assist to assist him cope along with his work and trauma.

Extra broadly, Ball Lightning showcases the inherent risks in creating superior weapons with experimental science and know-how. The ball lightning weapons that Lin and Chen are chargeable for creating might help China towards its adversaries (presumably the USA, however frustratingly, Liu by no means fleshes out the precise geopolitics of the looming struggle). However they might — and do — come at a excessive value to the nation. There are parallels to the pursuit of the atomic bomb in the course of the Second World Struggle: the weapons helped deliver an finish to the battle, however launched new and terrifying risks to the world with their invention.

Finally, Ball Lighting has all the parts that introduced Liu bursting onto the world stage along with his Three-Physique novels: a narrative of fantastical science and know-how, and the risks they pose within the fallacious palms.

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