Head of Zeus | 2018 (14 August) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
On Chen’s fourteenth birthday, as he and his parents sat around his birthday cake with its fourteen candles, Chen watches his mother and father transform in a heartbeat into statues of ash, which disintegrate at a touch. Ball lightning has killed Chen’s parents and in that moment Chen’s obsession with this deadly phenomenon begins.
Years later, ball lightning has become Chen’s life’s work as he labours alongside other geniuses to explain its existence, its strangeness and its uses, and to recreate it, even to control it. It is strange indeed. Why was Chen’s tee shirt totally incinerated by the ball lightning that killed his parents but his body and the coat he wore over that shirt were left completely untouched? The more Chen investigates, the more peculiarities he discovers, not only about ball lightning but also about the universe around us. And then there are the people Chen works beside – they are as curious as the phenomenon that they study, especially Lin Yun whose story will rival that of Chen.
Ball Lightning is an extraordinary novel by an author who writes hard science fiction like nobody else I can name. I loved Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, which tackled first contact in a way that is so original and complex and gobsmacking that I will never forget it. And then I marvelled at his short stories in The Wandering Earth. Here is an author who can write on the macro and micro levels (you’ll see what I mean if you read the books) and, whatever the length of the book or story (Ball Lightning is a stand alone novel), he crams it full of the most breathtaking ambition, wonder and science.
Ball Lightning is a novel about what ball lightning might be but it is also a human story, following a small group of scientists and soldiers at a time when war is imminent between China and America. Each person approaches ball lightning with their own agenda, their own experience of it, all pulled together by Chen, our narrator and our witness. It’s hard for these men and women to form relationships – their thoughts soar beyond the physical world – but here they are formed nonetheless and they are so beautifully drawn. I was particularly struck by the relationship between Lin Yun and her general father.
The science here is very hard indeed and I did struggle with some of it. I’m not much of a quantum physicist, that’s for sure, but while certain sections of analysis washed over me, they did so in a really pleasant way. I read them and appreciated them because it all builds layer by layer, everything leads to the next thing, and I picked up more than enough to feel the wonder of it all. What we discover is incredible!
Ball Lightning was mostly written over ten years ago and there is a suggestion that it’s set in the same universe as The Three-Body Problem. Certainly, there are similarities with some of the discoveries. But I’m not going to give anything away about what Chen finds because you must discover it for yourself and also because, unlike Cixin Liu, I don’t have the words for this. I actually experienced ball lightning myself many years ago, when I was a teenager, about the same age as Chen when the book begins. I’ve often thought about it over the years. There can be no better book than this to give this extraordinary phenomenon life and meaning.
The translator is Joel Martinsen. This hardback is another beautiful book, with a ribbon, by Head of Zeus.