Cixin Liu Pushes the Boundaries of Discovery
There is no question scientific discovery has driven humanity forward, and in the past century it could be said its effects have amplified immensely. In only a hundred years we went from carriages and the steam engine to aeroplanes, fission energy, nuclear bombs, computers, the internet, and everything you could possibly imagine in-between. In other words, we’ve recently begun to push the frontiers of discovery further and further, to the point where some have begun to wonder whether or not our technological reach will exceed our grasp. After all, we’ve already ventured into atomic territory and as a result have created weapons capable of annihilating the entire planet… are we really to be trusted? It’s a question bothering many people, and Cixin Liu (author of the Three-Body Problem trilogy) has decided to write a story centred on it, titled Ball Lightning .
The premise for the story is rather simple to begin with, and eventually expands into something much more complex and far-reaching. We are presented with Chen, a man who has devoted his life to explaining the mysterious titular phenomenon, ball lightning, after it vaporized his parents right before his eyes. Though at the onset his research focuses largely on nature and takes him to stormy mountaintops, it eventually devolves into something more sinister as he finds himself investigating an experimental weapons laboratory as well as an old Soviet science station. It doesn’t take him too long to fall neck-deep into a plot he couldn’t have ever dreamt of, involving madmen, physicists, soldiers, and an overly-ambitious general… all reaching towards the coveted prize of scientific discovery without any regards for morality or consequence.
The Unknown Storm of Uncharted Lands
On the surface, the premise for the plot appears quite simple and I’m certain you have divined by now how the various pieces of the puzzle connect, at least in general terms with the deadly weather phenomenon, mad scientists and experimental weapons laboratory. Once the story leaves the preparatory stage however, Liu makes a point of trying to subvert our expectations by adding twists, turns and tweaks to a formula well-known to us. He doesn’t beat around the bush with concepts and details we can already divine as fans of the genre, instead taking the time to focus on Chen and developing a bond between him and the reader. Once the stage is set, we undertake a journey to what feels like lands unknown, unravelling bit by bit with Chen a plot which consistently adds more complex elements into play.
Unlike his previous trilogy, the story here is based on a sole strand of science-fiction which allows him to take his time and delve quite profoundly into the various elements pertaining to the genre. In other words, he offers a surprising amount of technical details, and while I wouldn’t be able to say how many of them are accurate within the realm of physics, it all felt realistic enough for me to believe in. However, I will admit it does drag on at times and the technical explanations in a few sections can be difficult to follow. However, this doesn’t happen often and can be forgiven due to the overall nature of the story and the care the author has taken in creating a science-fiction universe we can truly believe in.
Is Mankind Ready?
While the plot itself is definitely full of excitement and various characters you won’t soon forget, I feel the real star of this show are the author’s philosophical meditations on the human condition. As mentioned before, the main idea around which the whole book revolves is whether or not we are ready for the discoveries we are making. I honestly believe it’s one of the more urgent and pressing topics humanity loves to sweep under the rug, even though everyone knows it’s only a matter of time until someone makes the sort of discovery which might afford a tiny group of people the power over everyone else. The author definitely takes a stance on the issue, but not without examining the arguments for and against his point of view.
Regardless of what your point of view is on the tremendous technological progress we have known in recent history, he does make a very good case for humanity eventually being the cause of its own damnation, our minds unprepared for the truths we find. His criticisms of human nature are quite insightful to read and woven seamlessly into the narrative to the point where they enhance the pace rather than bringing it to a stop. Along the way Liu also finds the time to muse on life, love and death, how they all have their places in human existence. I would like to note the excellent work done by the translator, Joel Martinsen, in ensuring as little as possible gets lost in translation, which is much easier said than done when it comes to the expression of complex thoughts.
The Final Verdict
Cixin Liu will probably forever be known for his Three-Body Problem trilogy more than anything else, with most agreeing it being his magnum opus. However, this only overshadows other excellent work he has done, and I believe Ball Lightning deserves no less praise than his most famous work. The plot is developed in original and unique ways, the characters are all remarkable and memorable in their fashion, not to mention the vast amounts of food for thought on the human condition and our relation with scientific discovery. I highly recommend this book to anyone who calls themselves a science-fiction fan.