Ball Lightning

Ball Lightning


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From the New York Times bestselling author of the Three-Body Trilogy, Cixin Liu's Ball Lightning is the story of what happens when the beauty of scientific inquiry runs up against the drive to harness new discoveries with no consideration of their possible consequences.

When Chen’s parents are incinerated before his eyes by a blast of ball lightning, he devotes his life to cracking the secret of this mysterious natural phenomenon. His search takes him to stormy mountaintops, an experimental military weapons lab, and an old Soviet science station.

The more he learns, the more he comes to realize that ball lightning is just the tip of an entirely new frontier. While Chen’s quest for answers gives purpose to his lonely life, it also pits him against soldiers and scientists with motives of their own: a beautiful army major with an obsession with dangerous weaponry, and a physicist who has no place for ethical considerations in his single-minded pursuit of knowledge.

"Wildly imaginative."—Barack Obama on The Three-Body Problem trilogy

Tor books by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem Series
#1 The Three-Body Problem
#2 The Dark Forest
#3 Death's End

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765394095
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 06/25/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 208,946
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

CIXIN LIU is a prolific and popular science fiction writer in the People's Republic of China. Liu is a winner of the Hugo Award and a multiple winner of the Galaxy Award (the Chinese Hugo) and the Xing Yun Award (the Chinese Nebula). He lives with his family in Yangquan, Shanxi.

Liu is the author of The Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death's End), and Ball Lightning.

JOEL MARTINSEN (translator) is research director for a media intelligence company. His translations have appeared in Words Without Borders and Pathlight. He lives in Edinburgh.

Read an Excerpt



Major courses: Higher Mathematics, Theoretical Mechanics, Fluid Mechanics, Principles and Applications of Computers, Languages and Programming, Dynamic Meteorology, Principles of Synoptic Meteorology, Chinese Meteorology, Statistical Forecasting, Long-Term Weather Forecasting, Numerical Forecasting.

Elective courses: Atmospheric Circulation, Meteorological Diagnostic Analysis, Storms and Mid-Scale Meteorology, Thunderstorm Prediction and Prevention, Tropical Meteorology, Climate Change and Short-Term Climate Prediction, Radar and Satellite Meteorology, Air Pollution and Urban Climatology, High-Altitude Meteorology, Atmosphere-Ocean Interactions.

Just five days before, I had taken care of everything in the house and set out for a southern city a thousand kilometers away to go to college. Shutting the door to a now-empty house, I knew that I was leaving my childhood behind forever. From now on, I would be a machine in pursuit of a single goal.

Looking over the list of courses that would occupy me for the next four years, I felt a little disappointed. Many of the things on it I had no need for, and some of the things that I did need — like Electricity and Magnetism and Plasma Physics — were not. I realized that I might have applied to the wrong major, and perhaps should have gone into physics instead of atmospheric science.

So I plunged into the library, spending most of my time on mathematics, E&M, and plasma physics, attending only the classes that involved those subjects and basically skipping all of the rest. Colorful collegiate life had nothing for me, and I had no interest in it. Returning to my dorm room at one or two in the morning and hearing a roommate mumble his girlfriend's name in his sleep was the only reminder I had of that other mode of life.

One night, well after midnight, I lifted my head out of a thick partial differential equations text. I had assumed that at this time of night I would be the only student left in the nighttime reading room, as usual, but across from me I saw Dai Lin, a pretty girl from my class. She had no books in front of her. She was simply resting her head on her hands and looking at me. Her expression would not have been enchanting to her scads of admirers. It was the look of someone who has discovered a spy in camp, a look directed at something alien. I had no idea how long she had been looking at me.

"You're a peculiar person. I can tell you're not just a nerd because you've got a strong sense of purpose," she said.

"Oh? Doesn't everyone have goals?" I tossed off the question. I may have been the only male student in class who had never spoken to her.

"Our goals are vague. But you, you're definitely looking for something very specific."

"You've got a good eye for people," I said blandly as I gathered my books and stood up. I was the one man who had no need to show off for her, and this gave me a sense of superiority.

When I reached the door, she called after me, "What are you looking for?" "You wouldn't be interested." I left without looking back.

In the quiet autumn night outside, I looked up at a sky full of stars. My dad's voice seemed to carry on the air: "The key to a wonderful life is a fascination with something." Now I understood how right he was. My life was a speeding missile, and I had no other desire than to hear it explode as it hit its target. A goal with no practical purpose, but one that would make my life complete once I reached it. Why I was going to that particular place, I did not know. It was enough to simply want to go, an impulse that lay at the core of human nature. Oddly, I had never gone to look up any materials related to It. My fascination and I were two knights whose entire lives would be devoted to preparing for a single duel, and until I was ready I would neither think about it nor seek it out directly.

* * *

Three semesters passed in the blink of an eye, time that felt like one uninterrupted span, because without a home to return to, I spent all of my holidays at school. Living all by myself in a spacious dormitory, I had few feelings of loneliness. Only on the eve of the Spring Festival, when I heard the firecrackers going off outside, did I think about my life before It had appeared, but that life felt like it was a generation ago. As I spent those nights in a dorm room with the heat turned off, the cold made my dreams especially lifelike.

Although I had imagined as a child that my mom and dad would appear in my dreams, they had not. I remembered an Indian legend that told of a king who, when his beloved consort died, decided to build a luxurious tomb the likes of which had never before been seen. He spent the better part of his life working on that tomb. Finally, when construction was complete, he noticed his consort's coffin lying right at the center and said: That doesn't belong. Take it away.

My parents had long since departed, and It occupied every corner of my mind.

But what happened next complicated my simple world.



The summer after my sophomore year I took a trip back home to rent out the old place so I could afford my future tuition.

It was already dark when I arrived, so I had to feel around to turn the lock and make my way in. Turning on the light revealed a familiar scene. The table that had held a birthday cake during the night of the thunderstorm was still there, with three chairs still sitting around it, as if I had left just yesterday. Exhausted, I sat down on the sofa, and as I took stock of my home, I felt that something was not right. The feeling was indistinct at first, but as it gradually took shape like a submerged reef coming into view during a foggy cruise, I could not avoid it.

At last I discovered the source: it was as if I had left just yesterday.

I inspected the table: there was a thin layer of dust, a little too thin for the two years I had been away.

I went to the bathroom to wash the dirt and sweat off my face. When I turned on the light, I could see myself clearly in the mirror. Too clearly. The mirror should not have been that clean. I distinctly remembered going away with my parents during one summer break when I was in elementary school, and although we were only gone a month, when we came back, I could draw a stick figure in the dust on the mirror. Now, when I made a few strokes on the mirror with my finger, nothing appeared.

I turned on the faucet. After two years, the water from the iron tap should have been rusty, but what flowed out was perfectly clear.

I went back to the living room after washing my face and noticed something else: Two years ago, just as I was about to leave, but before I shut the door, I looked over the entire room on the off-chance that I had forgotten something and had noticed a glass sitting on the table. I thought about turning it upside down so it would not collect dust, but with my luggage in hand it would have taken too much effort to go back, so I dropped the idea. I distinctly remembered that detail.

But now, the glass was turned upside down on the table!

Just then, the neighbors came over to see why the lights were on. They greeted me with the sort of kind words one uses with an orphan who has gone off to college, promising that they would take care of renting the place and, if I could not come back after graduation, help me get a good price for it.

"The environment seems to have improved quite a bit since I left," I said casually, as talk turned to how things had changed over the past two years.

"Improved? Get your eyes checked! That power plant over by the distillery just started up last year, and now there's twice as much dust as when you left! Ha! Are things improving anywhere these days?"

I glanced at the table and its thin layer of dust and said nothing. But when I saw them off, I could not help asking whether any of them had a key to the house. They looked at each other in surprise and said they most certainly did not. I believed them, because there had been a total of five keys, three of which still worked. When I left two years ago I took all three: one I had with me now, and two others were far away in my college dorm room.

After the neighbors left, I inspected the windows, all of them tightly sealed with no evidence of break-ins.

The remaining two keys had been carried by my parents. But on that night, they had melted. I will never forget how I'd found those two misshapen lumps of metal among my parents' ashes. Those keys, melted and resolidified, were sitting in my dormitory a thousand kilometers away, as mementos of that fantastic energy.

I sat for a while before starting to get together the things that would be stored or taken back with me once the house was rented. I first packed my father's watercolors, one of the few things in the room that I wanted to save. I took down the ones hanging on the walls first, then got others out of a cabinet and packed as many as I could find into a cardboard box. Then I noticed one more painting. It was still lying on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, facedown, which was why I had missed it. When I glanced at it before putting it into the box, it seized my whole attention.

It was a landscape painting of the scenery visible from the door to our home. The surrounding scenery was dull: a few gray four-story walk-ups and several rows of poplars, lifeless from the dust covering them....

As a third-rate amateur painter, my father was lazy. Rarely going out to sketch from the real world, he was content to paint the muddy scenes that surrounded him. He said that there were no flat colors, only mediocre painters. That was the sort of painter he was, but these flat scenes, which acquired another level of woodenness as interpreted through his artless brush, actually managed to capture everyday life in this dingy northern city. The painting I held in my hand was like so many already in the box, with nothing in particular to recommend it.

But I had noticed something: a water tower that was a little more brightly colored than the old buildings surrounding it, standing tall like a morning glory. Nothing special, really, because there was indeed a water tower outside. I looked out the window at the towering structure silhouetted against the lights of the city.

Except, the water tower had not been completed until after I went off to college. When I left two years ago, it had been half-finished and covered in scaffolding.

I trembled, and the painting slipped out of my hand. A breath of cold air seemed to blow through the house on this midsummer night.

I crammed the painting into the box, closed the lid tightly, and then started packing other things. I tried to focus my attention on the task at hand, but my mind was a needle suspended on a filament, and the box was a strong magnet. With effort, I could redirect the needle, but once I let up, it would swing back in that direction.

It was raining. The raindrops tapped softly against the windowpane, but the sound seemed to be coming from the box....

Finally, when I could not stand it any longer, I raced to the box, opened it, took out the painting, and carried it to the bathroom, taking care to hold it facedown. Then I took out a lighter and lit one corner. When about a third of the painting had burned up, I gave in and flipped it over. The water tower was even more lifelike than before, and seemed to poke out of the surface. I watched as it was consumed by flames, which turned strange, seductive colors as the watercolors burned. I dropped the last bit of the painting into the sink and watched it burn out, then turned on the faucet and rinsed the ashes down the drain.

When I turned off the faucet, my eyes were drawn to something on the edge of the sink that I had not noticed when I'd washed my face.

A few strands of hair. Long hair.

They were white hairs, some completely white, so they blended in with the sink, and others half-white, the black portions catching my attention. Definitely not hair that I had left behind two years before. My hair had never been that long, and I had never had any white hair at all. Carefully, I lifted up one long, half-black, half-white strand.

... pluck one, and seven will grow back ...

I tossed the hair aside like it burned my hand. As the strand drifted gently downward, it left a trail: a trail made up of the fleeting images of many strands, like a momentary persistence of vision. It did not land beside the sink, but fell only partway before vanishing into thin air. I looked back at the other hairs on the sink: they, too, had vanished without a trace.

I ran my head under the faucet for a long while, then walked stiffly back to the living room, where I sat down on the sofa and listened to the rain outside. It had turned heavy, a storm without thunder or lightning. Rain pounded on the windows, sounding like a voice, or perhaps many people speaking softly, as if they were trying to remind me of something. As I listened, I started to imagine the meaning of the murmuring, which became more and more real as it was repeated:

There was lightning that night, there was lightning that night, there was lightning that night, there was lightning that night, there was lightning that night ...

Once again I sat in that house until dawn on a stormy night, and once again I numbly left home. I knew I was leaving something behind forever, and I knew I would never return.



Classes in atmospheric electricity started that semester, meaning I would finally have to face it.

The subject was taught by an assistant professor named Zhang Bin. He was about fifty, neither short nor tall, wore glasses that were neither thick nor thin, had a voice that was neither loud nor soft, and his lectures were neither great nor terrible. In sum, as average as a person could be, except for a slight limp in one leg, something you would not notice unless you paid close attention.

That afternoon after class, I was left alone in the lecture room with Zhang Bin, who was gathering his things at the podium and did not notice me. A late-autumn sunset sent its golden beams into the room, and a layer of golden leaves covered the windowsill. Ordinarily cold and detached, I suddenly realized that this was the season for poetry.

I got up and walked over to the podium. "Professor Zhang, I'd like to ask you a question completely unrelated to today's lecture."

He looked up at me for a moment before nodding and returning his attention to his things.

"It's about ball lightning. What can you tell me about it?" I uttered the words that I had kept buried deep in my heart, never daring to speak aloud.

His hands ceased their activity. He looked up — not at me, but out the window at the setting sun, as if that were what I was referring to. "What do you want to know?" he asked after a few seconds.

"Everything," I said.

Zhang Bin continued to look at the sun as its light bathed his face. It was still quite bright at that hour. Didn't it hurt his eyes?

"The historical record, for example," I prompted in more detail.

"In Europe, records exist from as early as the Middle Ages. In China, a relatively clear record was set down by Zhang Juzheng in the Ming dynasty. But the first formal scientific discussion only occurred in 1837, and the scientific community didn't accept it as a natural phenomenon until the last forty years."

"Any theories about it?"

"There are many." After this simple sentence, Zhang Bin was silent. He turned away from the setting sun, but did not resume getting his things together. He seemed deep in thought.

"What are the traditional theories?"

"That it's a vortex of high-temperature plasma whose rapid internal rotation exerts a force in equilibrium with outside atmospheric pressure and thus can maintain stability for a relatively long time."


"Others believe that it's a chemical reaction within a high-temperature gas mixture, by which it maintains energy equilibrium."

"Can you tell me anything else?" Asking him questions was like trying to move a heavy grindstone that barely budged an inch with each push.

"There's also the microwave-soliton theory, which says that ball lightning is caused by an atmospheric maser with a volume of several cubic meters. ... A maser is like a much less powerful laser, which, inside a large volume of air, can produce a localized magnetic field as well as solitons, which then create visible ball lightning."

"And the latest theories?"

"There are lots. For example, one by Abrahamson and Dinniss at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand has gained a fair amount of attention. Their theory says that ball lightning is primarily due to the oxidization of a filamentary network of silicon nanoparticles. There are many more. Some people even believe that it is a cold fusion reaction in the air."

He paused, but then came out with more information: "In this country, there's someone at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who has suggested an atmospheric plasma theory. It starts off with magnetic fluid dynamics equations and introduces a vector-soliton resonator model which, under appropriate boundary temperatures, is theoretically able to achieve a plasma vortex in the atmosphere — a fireball — and whose numerical analysis explains both the necessary and sufficient conditions for its existence."


Excerpted from "Ball Lightning"
by .
Copyright © 2005 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (Liu Cixin).
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part One,
Strange Phenomena I,
Ball Lightning,
Lin Yun I,
Zhang Bin,
Strange Phenomena II,
A Bolt from the Blue,
Part Two,
Lighthouse Inspiration,
General Lin Feng,
Attack Bees,
Ball Lightning,
Ding Yi,
Empty Bubbles,
Burnt Chips,
Strange Phenomena III,
The Nuclear Power Plant,
Strange Phenomena IV,
Part Three,
Chip Destruction,
Ambush at Sea,
The Special Leading Group,
Lin Yun II,
The Quantum Rose,
Tor Books by Cixin Liu,
About the Author and Translator,

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