Cixin Liu’s Ball Lightning opens with a young Chen witnessing his parents being incinerated by an unexplained sphere of energy, and then follows Chen as he delves ever deeper into the mysteries surrounding this inscrutable atmospheric phenomenon. His obsession leads him into top-secret laboratories and culminates in the accidental realization of a new form of military deterrence. Along the way, he is forced to question his own internal strife and intractable ethical quandaries by working alongside the beautiful and weapon-obsessed Major Lin Yun and the heedlessly single-minded physicist Ding Yi.
Ball lightning is, in fact, a genuine mystery in contemporary physics and atmospheric science. However, none of the myriad theories proposed to explain it go quite as far as Liu’s speculation, which breaks the tenets of particle physics. Following on the heels of his landmark Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Ball Lightning establishes Liu as a dominant force in so-called “hard” science fiction, although his more recent novel unfolds over a much more limited spatial and temporal domain. There are no extraterrestrial powers or looming extinction events here, although humanity is once again portrayed as stumbling around a dark and incomprehensible universe it will never truly master.
Rather, Liu focuses on the human and geopolitical side of scientific progress. For all the quantum-mechanical jargon, the real centerpieces of the novel are Chen’s struggle to balance his traumatic past with the need to build a life for himself, and the relationship between scientific progress and military power. Each character’s perspective is inhibited or restricted in some way, from Lin Yun’s monomaniacal ruthlessness to Ding Yi’s intellectual amorality, and each inhibition is grounded in part of that person’s history. Liu populates Ball Lightning with logical, well-crafted individuals and manages to conjure a compelling conflict out of a cast of characters who are all trying to do the right thing. The resulting story is curiously optimistic for a speculative parable about the human propensity for self-destruction. At its core, Ball Lightning is an emotionally compelling and well-written story hiding within a shell of detailed and thoroughly researched quantum mechanics, and it serves as ample evidence for Liu’s pedigree as a storyteller working within the constraints of rigorous speculative fiction.