Hardback: TOR, 2018
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Reviewed by Jacob Reynold Jones
It is only the most accomplished science fiction author who successfully networks theory and praxis, weaving a compelling narrative out of the process of science itself.
Cixin Liu’s Ball Lightning is, like much good sci-fi, a discussion of technology’s implications in war and the broader culture, as well as a reflection on the culture of science and its effects in our everyday lives. What sets this novel apart is that it is also the the story of an engineering problem and its solution–a solution that ultimately results in radical applications, with more than a smattering of theological undertones that may interest religious readers in both pantheistic and Abrahamic traditions.
When 14 year-old Chen witnesses his parents’ deaths by a freak, natural occurence of ball lightning, he devotes his life to understanding the phenomenon. For the first two thirds of the book, the emphasis is on the engineering process and theory-building. The hope of knowledge drives the narrative ahead. Chen’s path through college, graduate school, and beyond leads him to others who have tried and failed to explain what causes the almost supernatural event.
A professor’s career circles the problem but never lands on a theoretical cause for ball lightning; a Russian research base spends years of research, suffers multiple ball lightning fatalities, but ultimately comes up dry; members of the military attempt to weaponize nature for war. But science is an intergenerational process. Liu’s narrative tells truth in this: the failures of past careers churn the soil of progress and plant the seeds of thoughts to come–nothing is wasted.
Liu crafts a story that rotates like a tornado over water–another weather phenomenon he draws on both for plot points and for metaphor: the currents of narrative flow spin together slowly, sometimes mundanely, until for brief, exhilarating moments, Chen’s research achieves a stable vortex. Progress on ball lightning comes in stages. Science, like art, involves iterations. As each piece of the puzzle is unlocked, the reader feels with Chen the thrill of discovery and the deepening of mystery. Without spoiling the details of the theoretical and engineering breakthroughs–which are the heartbeat of the story–Chen’s intellectual journey eventually leads–perhaps as all mysteries do–to quantum mechanics. And that’s where the story gets really interesting.
Most of us think of nature in terms of physical matter and immaterial energy. To quantum physicists, even the subatomic particles that make up air; water; our bodies–aren’t truly physical in the way we understand physicality. Instead, they are pockets of space that fluctuate. The fluctuations inside a proton create positive charge. The fluctuations within an electron create negative charge. When these fluctuations interact with one another, there is cohesion; pull; attraction.
All matter is empty space, vibrating, fluctuating, dancing in rhythm to processes that become more mysterious the deeper we look into them. In that sense, science has come full circle to reconcile with pre-modern cosmology. The universe, in its most elementary form, exists as formless chaos–just like the Greeks and Mesopotamians believed; just as Brahmanic Hindus believe. This is Marduk–the creator–battling Tiamat in the Babylonian creation story. This is Greek mythology: Gaia emerging from chaos, the Titans conquering Gaia, and Zeus overthrowing the Titans–the chaotic falling to a greater form of order with each new chapter in the myth. Pantheism, too (i.e. Hinduism; Buddhism), hinges on the idea that the universe is the body of a roiling, shapeless fundamentality manifested in the form of an illusion–the physical world.
And then there is the Judeo-Christian commentary on the idea of fundamental chaos: creation ex nihilo, where God hovers over the shapeless void, speaking into existence light–energy; substance. So, too, in quantum mechanics, chaos is the substrate of reality, although a purely material, non-theistic view of the universe holds that evolution from chaos to order happened according to natural processes.
The theological idea space in stories about quantum mechanics is palpable; in its own right, that space is a primordial substance ripe for creation through artistic conversation.
In the final third of the book, Liu has a blast playing with these ideas, extrapolating far beyond what science tells us about the quantum world. Chen’s growing understanding of ball lightning–as fantastical as it may be in terms of real world science–is a fascinating foray into quantum mechanics, and into the nature of the universe itself. Could there be other realms that vibrate on different frequencies than ours? Is death one of those realms? The book sits in conversation with both science and philosophy, perhaps even validating the existence of the spiritual and the supernatural. Although the story takes a wild turn into the farthest-reaching branches of physics, those extrapolations are, at their roots, founded in scientific theory.
Science-minded readers will appreciate how grounded Liu is in his basic and applied science. The engineering descriptions are technical in an accessible way–something we need more of in fiction and academic writing alike. Liu reaches out both to casual fans of hard science fiction and academic or engineering readers looking for a reality-grounded, escapist thrill. Those who read sci-fi for the philosophy will enjoy how the final act stimulates reflection on the relationship between reality and the mind.
The writing is beautiful and distinctly non-American, which comes across even in translation. Some readers may take issue with occasional moments of choppy plot progression and the foreign-sounding dialogue, whose cadence also arrives in the English. Still, the book presents a wonderful opportunity to engage with the vibrance of another culture. Liu states in the book’s afterword that this story was written in a style that attempts to bridge Eastern and Western scientific storytelling:
Chinese science fiction [at its inception a century ago] was dominated by the invention story, a form that was preoccupied with the description of a future technological device and speculation on its immediate positive effects, but which barely touched the invention’s deeper social implications (382).
Ball Lightning respects that form, with its emphasis on the discovery of scientific principles and the invention of technology. Many readers may be put off by the long descriptions of engineering processes; others may find those same descriptions a tasteful, robust justification for the narrative; indeed, without them, the final act of the story would almost land as straight fantasy (in the sense that The Matrix would be a fantasy without its clear attention to physics and computer science research). Yet, Liu maintains, the novel is western in that it pursues the intersection between the physical and the transcendent; the whimsical.
Intellectual, thoughtful Christians should delight in those nods toward transcendence–Ball Lightning creates space for conversation between science and theology and invites the kind of boundless creativity and tailored skepticism that make both realms of study thrive.