Ball Lightning

last updated 2018-09-03

by Cixin Liu

Following a deep obsession with Liu's Remberance of Earth's Past trilogy, I picked up a standalone novel of his about the quirky science of harnessing the power of ball lightning. As always with his books, there are fascinating forward-thinking ideas, and in this case they are far more terrestrially focused than the trilogy. There is a bit more lost in translation, I think, and everything is so military-focused I found it exhausting. That could be a reflection of the realities in China (and heck, in the US too, who am I kidding). All in all, it was not quite as compelling as the triology, but certainly a fun and interesting read.

At the very end was context-setting that I wish had been at the beginning:

Those books set the foundation for my concept of science fiction and were a catalyst for the later Three-Body trilogy; however, their influence did not extend to Ball Lightning. 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. But this similarity to early-period Chinese science fiction is only skin-deep; at its heart, this is not a Chinese-style story. The ball lightning described in the book may resemble that sort of futuristic device, but the flights of fancy it gives rise to are nowhere to be found in the science fiction of that period. And while the book is set in a China that is altogether real, those little balls of lightning seem like they’re trying to transcend that reality, like how a man’s tie, within the confines of its narrow dimensions, has the freedom to indulge in a riot of colors and patterns unbounded by the rigid formula of a business suit. In a way, Ball Lightning is a prequel to the Three-Body series, since it concludes with the first appearance of the aliens that would eventually threaten humanity and features a version of Ding Yi, who also appears in later books.

Compiled 2024-04-21