(2018) Cixin Liu, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 384pp, ISBN 978-1-786-69468-3
I read The Wandering Earth translated by Joel Martinsen, a collection of short stories by Cixin Liu, not too long ago and greatly enjoyed them, finding them well written and very inventive. With Ball Lightning I was looking forward to a whole novel full of his inventiveness, but I was to be disappointed, even though it is again well written.
The story is told mostly in the first person by Chen and it starts on his fourteenth birthday as he is eating dinner with his parents. It is a stormy night and to their surprise a ball of lightning enters the room. He is horrified when it discharges through his parents and leaves them as grey statues, statues which collapse into ash the moment he touches them. Furthermore, he finds his own T-shirt has burnt away to ash yet left him completely untouched, as is the jacket he was wearing over it. He determines to spend his life investigating this strange phenomenon.
When he is older he attends college and studies under Professor Zhang Bin, who had himself spent many years fruitlessly studying ball lightning. He does well and later, as part of his doctoral studies, he visits the Yuhuang Peak Meteorology Station on Mount Tai; this is to be a decisive moment in his life as it is here that he meets Lin Yun, also a doctoral student but at the National University of Defence Technology, and a very impressive young woman she is too. Later, now having his doctorate, Chen joins his old advisor Professor Gao Bin at the Lighting Institute at Beijing and is encouraged to renew his acquaintance with Lin Yun who is now a Major in the military and is leading a team researching ball lightning at the New Concepts Weapon Development Centre.
The two start to work together; Chen is purely interested in understanding ball lightning but Lin Yun has a deep-rooted desire to weaponise anything she comes across. Events from her childhood have left her determined to find as many ways as possible to kill the enemies of China (whoever they should prove to be). As their researches continue they learn more about the phenomena but not enough to ever make it a useable weapon; indeed, they cannot even get it to appear on demand.
Their researches continue to achieve little until they are joined by Professor Ding Yi, a brilliant but ruthless physicist. He postulates that as well as all the sub-atomic particles created by the Big Bang of which we are already aware, a completely separate group of particles were also created; these are huge in comparison but much slower moving. Furthermore, they exist all around us but rarely interact with our world. He believes that ball lightning is simply the manifestation of one of these and proves the existence of ‘macro-electrons’. About the size of a football, they float around harmlessly and almost completely invisible. However, when raised to a higher energy level, such as found in a thunderstorm, they become the ball lightning with which we are familiar; when they discharge they drop back to their normal energy levels and ‘disappear’. As with normal electrons, they seem to have aspects of both particles and waves and the probabilistic aspect of their nature means that they discharge in what seems to us to be strange ways, each through a particular type of material. With this discovery, it is not long before the team capture many of them, figure out what they are likely to destroy (e.g. animals, specific substances), and weaponise them. Unfortunately, when war breaks out it transpires that the ‘enemy’ had been aware of their successes and had developed defences. The next step is therefore to look for ‘macro-protons’ and the like, something the world has never suspected, let alone seen in action. And it is in for a shock!
Whilst all this sounds very interesting, at least to me, it is told in a very flat way; it is written more like a history text book than a novel. There are many pages where the various characters get into many long, technical discussions on ball lightning, particles, and so on, as well as long accounts of their pasts and histories. Although these discussions move the story along, they do so very slowly and much of it feels very repetitive.
I am tempted to say that the story lacks any pace but in fact it does have one, a slow steady one. It reminds me of walking up a path on a steep hill; you plod along, one step at a time, each step taking you slowly nearer to the summit but without any trace of excitement of its own; you continue in the expectation of a great view when you finally arrive. When you get there, though, you realise that with each step you had seen slightly more and there is no special view waiting for you, just the one that has been slowly growing. I arrived at the end of this story and thought to myself ‘got there at last, but now I am here there is nothing special to add’.
There was, though, one intriguing idea that permeated the story: the probabilistic nature of the way in which matter is destroyed when ball lightning discharges. Indeed, is it destroyed or is it merely in a different state? And that led to a charming and rather fitting final scene - which you will have to read for yourselves.
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