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An “Invention Story” about Futile Obsession – Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu

Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu (Translated by Joel Martinsen, publisher: Tor Books; First Edition August 14, 2018; hardcover, 384 pages)

LIU Cixin, or Cixin Liu as he is known in English, is the author of the famous Science Fiction trilogy The Three Body Problem, originally known as Remembrance of Things Past, which starts with the novel of the same name as the series. I reviewed the third in this series, Death’s End, and this proved to be really difficult. Liu writes SF in Mandarin, with an emphasis on the Science part of SF rather than the Fiction part, and his novels have a strange (at least strange to a Western reader) manner of characterization. The characters’ dialogues are often formal, lengthy and declamatory – through no fault of the translators I’m sure. In this novel though, the characters are less “discomforting” and the reader can empathize with them more easily, though the topic, scientific research into the strange phenomenon of ball lightning, is still the main feature of the novel.

Ball Lightning, set in China, starts off with the death of the parents of the main character, “Dr. Chen”, when they are hit by ball lightning, and the story continues about the years that he spends on research projects, working with similarly obsessed scientists and military personnel to find, trap, and use the power of ball lightning.

Looking for the unexplained

The premise is fictitious since, even up to today, this has not been possible. Ball lightning is an unexplained and potentially dangerous atmospheric electrical phenomenon. The term refers to reports of luminescent, spherical objects – lightning in specific forms – that vary from pea-sized to several meters in diameter. Though usually associated with thunderstorms, the phenomenon lasts considerably longer than the split-second flash of a lightning bolt. Ongoing searches and experiments up to the present time have failed to completely define, contain or use this phenomenon.

In 2014, the first ever optical spectrum of what appears to have been a ball-lightning event was published in a scientific journal, and included a video at high frame-rate.

(Jianyong Cen, Ping Yuan, and Simin Xue, Observation of the Optical and Spectral Characteristics of Ball Lightning, in Physical Review Letters, no. 112, 035001, published 17 January 2014.)

(a) Evolution of the apparent diameter which is represented by FWHM. (b) Evolution of the peak intensity. (c) Evolution of the total intensity. The data of (a), (b), and (c) are based on the images recorded by digital video camera. (d) Evolution of the total intensity. The data are from the images recorded by high-speed camera. High-speed camera only recorded the later process of the BL. (Credit: Jianyong Cen, et al, reference above)

I am not a scientist, but it seems to me that the ball lightning phenomenon is like searching for Dark Matter or Planet Nine, or another of those intriguing but never to be satisfactorily explained natural phenomena. As a total pleb, I only knew of ball lightning from a famous scene in Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin book, The Seven Crystal Balls, where, in a pivotal moment, the mummy of “Rascar Capac” is vaporized by ball lightning. So even in 1943, when Hergé started serializing the story, ball lightning was a mystery.

Yet – to base an entire 379 page novel on that…? I had to conclude that it wasn’t as much about ball lightning as about what obsession does to people.

Mere worker bees

Time and again in the novel, individuals give up their lives, their relationships, their homes, and their sanity, to go someplace and join a team to try to harness ball lightning and use it as a military weapon. It struck me that these characters were like worker bees, so many of them, all dedicated and buzzing to build the hive and all happy to die for the cause. Is it fortuitous, promotion-wise, that the novel was published in translation in 2018, just when the USA’s relations with China began to publicly sour? You could say there is a tie-in. But remember, Liu published the novel in Mandarin in 2005. It’s a long time ago, and I can imagine that to translate this wordy monolith required years. Seeing any current social commentary in the novel, therefore, is conjecture.

A little bit of romance

Different from the characters in the Hard SF series The Three Body Problem, which I found was quite hard to relate to, Liu does bring a bit of humanity and romance into this novel, and at least I could distinguish between the different characters and feel something for them.

The Three Body Problem Series by Cixin Liu

The novel is written from the first person perspective, with Chen as the narrator. He meets and falls in love with a brilliant scientist, who turns out to be a major in charge of development of “New Concept” defence weapons in the Chinese military. She is, like Chen, obsessed with her work.

The conversations between her and Chen are narrated in the first person which segues into third person because of the complexity of the interchanges – various people talking to each other and recalling what who said to who, way back when. But putting that concern about form aside, the conversations are loaded with information and philosophical arguments. Here, Lin has an anti-personnel mine made of bamboo hanging from the rear view mirror of her car.

“‘Have you ever thought about why such a brutal thing as murder can bring with it such beauty?’
‘A profound question indeed. I’m not much for that kind of thinking,’
The car turned onto a narrow road. Lin Yun continued:
‘The beauty of an object can be completely separated from its practical function. Like a stamp: its actual function is irrelevant in a collector’s eyes.’
‘So then, to you, is weapons research motivated by beauty, or by functionality?’
As soon as the words left my mouth I felt the question was too impertinent. But again, she smiled in place of an answer. So many things about her were a mystery.
‘You’re the sort of person whose entire life is occupied by one thing,’ she said.
‘And you’re not?’
‘Hmmm, Yes, I am.’
Then we were both silent.’” (pp.77-78)

Future vision of China

Liu describes this China of the future as having almost unlimited power and resources, and as populated by a new type of man who would look out of place in the metrosexual world of today’s Me-Too generation. These soldiers, including Lin Yun’s boyfriend, “Jiang Xingchen”, are definitely macho. Yes, Chen unfortunately suffers the pangs of unrequited love.

“Most of Lin Yun’s colleagues and friends were men – soldiers – and even outside of work I seldom saw her with any female friends. Those young officers were members of the swiftly expanding intelligentsia, and all possessed a masculinity that was rare in contemporary society. This gave me a sense of inferiority that became particularly acute when Lin Yun was engrossed in discussions with them of military affairs.” (p.97)

And maybe it’s a good thing that he doesn’t take up with Lin Yun because ultimately, she has some very strange beliefs:

“True beauty needs to be supported by an internal strength, and develop itself through sensations like terror and brutality, from which you can both draw strength and meet your death.” (p.356)

Phew. Well. That kind of attitude is bound to have bad results.

This line is one in a death scene monologue of more than 8 pages. Yes, it does drag on. And the end, long-awaited, is literally a flash of light and shadow.

The blue rose

After all this delving into scientific possibilities, Liu ends the novel on a truly soppily romantic note – the brief appearance of a blue rose – knowing of course, that to grow a blue rose is, like containing and controlling ball lightning, a physical impossibility. Blue roses can be bred to look deep purple or greenish blue, but truly blue roses can only be achieved by genetic modification in a lab with a blue pigment.

Liu explains how the novel works

In the Afterword, Liu comments that, in 1982, he was witness to ball lightning when he was in Handan, Hebei Province, in China. It set off his thinking for a novel about the phenomenon. It is worth quoting in full Liu’s explanation of the writing style, characterization, plot and themes of  Ball Lightning. He actually explains perfectly why the novel reads like a scientific journal, with occasional awkward humanistic parts. It is what it is, an SF novel of its era, and so, when you read it, remember that and just roll with it. It’s still a pretty interesting story, and a conundrum worth thinking about.

“When I wrote this novel in 2003, I already had a mostly complete Three-Body series, but I felt that Chinese readers would respond more readily to a novel like Ball Lightning at that time.

China’s science fiction was born more than a century ago, at the close of the Qing Dynasty, but for most of its history it developed in relative isolation, and for a long period was entirely cut off from modern western science fiction. The field’s independent development gave the work of that period a distinct style, a difference that is clearly evident from a comparison of Ball Lightning and the Three-Body series.

Chinese science fiction during that closed-off period was dominated by the invention story, a form that was preoccupied with the description of a futuristic technological device and speculation on its immediate positive effects, but which barely touched the invention’s deeper social implications, much less the tremendous ways such technology would transform society.

And so it is with Ball Lightning: the emergence of such a powerful technological force is bound to have huge, far-reaching effects on human society – in politics, economics and even in culture. The book addresses none of this.” (Afterword, p. 382)

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