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Once 'Ball Lightning' Gets Rolling, This Sci-Fi Mind-Bender Shines


August 19, 2018 10:00 AM ET

Colin Dwyer 撰写

Somewhere deep in Siberia, a strungout Russian scientist has a little wisdom to offer.


Wedged into the cabin of a geriatric biplane, flanked by a pair of nervous new acquaintances, Dr. Alexander Gemow has been asked about the aircraft's fitness for flight. It's just sputtered to a halt on a snowbeaten tarmac — and while their drunk pilot has jogged it back to life, Gemow's fellow passengers understandably wonder what would happen if the ancient aircraft should die again, you know, after it takes off.


"In Siberia," comes his less than inspiring reply, "a one hundred percent guarantee isn't necessarily a good thing. Sometimes you fly all the way only to discover it would have been better to have fallen halfway."


And it's not just a product of Liu's fertile imagination. It's a real, if little understood, phenomenon.


In the book's opening pages, we meet Chen at the eerie moment that shaped his life: the birthday party at which the beautiful ball of death claimed both his parents' lives.


That eerie electromagnetic mcguffin gets this whole novel rolling (so to speak) in promising fashion, but it's a promise that takes a while for him to keep. As Chen embarks on his quest to comprehend his parents' killer — first in academia then through collaboration with the military — the reader must face some long, lonely stretches of apparently thin motivations, telegraphed plot twists and thickets of unexplained jargon so thick, it can be tough to find the other side.


But here's the thing: Don't be fooled by Gemow's bleak adage, the way I nearly was. This novel rewards commitment. Eventually, after the introduction of a few late-arriving characters, one of whom readers of the trilogy will recognize right away, Liu's own boundless creativity finds its footing. The wayward gears fall in line and the text shudders to life. Vivid, mind-bending life.


As the characters begin to unravel the novel's central mystery, experiment after experiment, their understanding of the world unravels with it. Chen and Lin set out toward their shared goal, the knowledge of ball lightning, following different paths — in his case, the pursuit of scientific growth; in hers, the desire for the perfect instrument of destruction.


In other words, prepare for things to get weird — so weird, in fact, you may be inclined to sympathize with the random extra who at one point blurts out: "You look at the air and it seems so empty, not a crazy world like this!"


And that, in the end, makes the little irritations and leaps of logic well worth it. Therein rests the reward for seeing this thing through: the chance to see the world new.