Monday, 14 October 2019

Book review: Ball Lightning, Cixin Liu (2018)

Despite some slightly clunky characterisation and some cliché (drunk Russians, absent-minded professors), this novel is a lot of fun to read. I also wasn’t totally happy moreover with a couple of the major plot points, notably the childhood stories of the two main characters – Chen (this is his surname, his first name is not often noted as he focalises the entire narrative), who is a man, and Lin Yun, a woman who is in the military – which serve to motivate these two to behave in various ways. Don’t leave yet though! There are lots of good things to say about this book as well.

For the Western market Liu uses our naming convention of putting his first name first and his surname last, in place of the more normal Chinese way of writing names (in Chinese his name would be Liu Cixin).

But there are some particularly Chinese characteristics that provide some of the drama in the novel, notably the relationship between Lin and her father. The relationship between Chen and his parents is complicated by the fact that he witnessed their death due to ball lightning when he was 14. After this event, there is a sudden jump in the story so that Chen ends up at university all of a sudden; what happened to him after his parents died, and who raised him, are not touched upon by the author.

In addition to this concern with elders there is the issue of nationalism. This aspect of the book is emphasised by the fact that the military conscript Chen to help them to develop weapons based on ball lightning. This is where he gets to know Lin and Ding Yi, an Einstein-like figure who eventually leads the research effort and who has, in addition to qualifications in physics, a degree in philosophy. There is war and there is the matter of protecting the homeland. There is a link with the Cold War and Russia (China’s “parent”), and there is a twist on the usual trope of the Chinese stealing technological knowhow from the West.

An overriding theme in the novel is the inherent value of the individual, even though for much of the time you are reading about what people in the armed forces do and say. On the other hand, there is not a single reference to the endemic corruption that blights existence for ordinary Chinese, so I felt the author has not been entirely candid. Of course, this very absence could be construed as a kind of oblique criticism. And it doesn’t pay to criticise the Party too openly. Liu does though make a seemingly random comment, through an unreliable Russian character, about aggressive Chinese mercantilism.

As well as being difficult from a technological standpoint, the novel is ambitious, evidence of this being the author’s desire to portray China’s place in the world in a nuanced and intelligent way. The way that the research the main characters are involved in reaches into their lives, and how it continues to affect them even after they have moved onto other things, is impressively handled. And the kick at the end is strong. The book’s final message is also powerful.

I also liked the novel’s regular appeals to something that is universal among people but that seems to be strongest in the Far East. This is the sense of the need for having a harmonious existence with the entirety of creation. It is implied by the use of striking images taken from the natural world – something that is very visible also in classical Chinese poetry – that provide ambience and colour for the action, and that deepen, in the reader’s mind, the feeling that the author is sincere.

Such descriptions might also, on the other hand, be convenient for an author who does not want to cause problems by criticising the political or social system he or she lives with. So it is an authorial tactic that can serve more than one end.

A little on the book’s publishing history to end this review. The novel came out in Chinese in 2005 and was published in the US in 2016 under the imprint Tor, which specialises in science fiction. Then it was translated (again?) by Joel Martinsen (who does a very good job with sometimes complex material) and was brought out by Head of Zeus in the UK. This British publisher was responsible for the very excellent ‘Bunny’ by Canadian author Mona Awad, which I reviewed last month on this blog. ‘Bunny’ also has speculative elements. 

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