Blimey, ball lightning is as elusive as a Venusian scout ship and as deadly as a nest of vipers. This is quickly established when there is a fatal encounter with a ball of lightning on Chen’s 14th birthday party.
Not only is it deadly, but it is highly selective - it reduces some books in a glass-fronted bookcase to ash, but the bookcase itself shows no signs of fire. Equally, Chen’s jacket is perfectly fine yet his tee shirt is destroyed and the frozen food in his refrigerator is completely cooked and smells delicious. It is such a shocking event that it leaves an indelible impression on Chen’s mind and he devotes his life to understanding how ball lightning comes into existence. It becomes a scientific detective story to find out what kills people and produces such exotic effects on neighbouring objects.
Cixin Liu cleverly interweaves the actual behaviour of ball lightning as recorded in historical records with Chen’s investigation of this enigma that takes him through college to researching the possibilities of turning it into a controllable weapon. On this journey, he meets others who have also lost loved ones due to the impact of encountering ball lightning. These include Zhang Bin who lectures on atmospheric electricity, and Alexander Gemow, a Russian scientist who shows how his research in Siberia came to nothing despite huge amounts of effort, time and resources being thrown at it.
In his search for answers and a greater understanding, Chen meets army major Lin Yun who works at the New Concept Weapons Development Centre and has a special interest in ball lightning. Chen finds she is attracted to the proximity of death and, despite his reservations, he is besotted by her quirky nature and her strong will to succeed at all costs.
Through these characters we learn an awful lot about ball lightning and it shows the author’s deep knowledge of physics, cosmology, meteorology and the politics and morality of scientific research. Despite the “hard” science it is an easy read that encourages you to find out more about what Jerry Lewis would call these great balls of fire. ‘Ball Lightning’ illuminates a subject that was fairly recently rejected by science and the perplexities of human existence.
BALL LIGHTNING / AUTHOR: CIXIN LIU / TRANSLATOR: JOEL MARTINSEN / PUBLISHER: HEAD OF ZEUS / RELEASE DATE: 22ND AUGUST 2018