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Literature / Ball Lightning

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Ball Lightning is a 2004 Chinese science-fiction novel by Liu Cixin (best known for The Three-Body Problem), possibly the single most popular sci-fi novel in China. It was first published in English in 2018, with a translation by Joel Martensen of

The story is centered around Dr. Chen and Major Lin Yun's pursuit and research of the eponymous anomaly, its weaponization and a war that... got worse after it ended. As shown by its sequel, the Earth's Past trilogy.

Dr. Chen, who witnesses both his parents get disintegrated by ball lightning, devotes his entire life to researching the poorly understood phenomenon. His quest takes him to a national defense research institute where government scientists are seeking to use ball lightning as a new-concept weapon. He becomes disgusted with the thought of his pure scientific research being used for killing, but every time he tries to escape, his obsession draws him back in.


Ball Lightning contains the following tropes:

  • Abnormal Ammo: The Lightning Machineguns developed by the researchers fire supercharged macro electrons that can disintegrate anything in front of them until the charge runs out.
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: The power plant the eco-terrorists held up still uses the same technology as the Soviet era Chernobyl plant, even though it is claimed as the most advanced in Asia.
  • Asshole Victim: Most people tend to touch ball lightnings when they appear around them. Guess what? Though some of them only got their fingernails and toenails disintegrated. Also some eco-terrorists who become the first practice-targets when they hold up the biggest nuclear power plant in China.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": As it turned out, the titular Ball Lightnings are in fact not weather anomalies but electrically charged projections of "Macro-Electrons", a physical structure largely unknown to humans. However, they are still mostly called "ball lightning", and some James Bond fans in the book called them "Thunderballs".
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Chen's first encounter with the ball lightning traumatized him for a year, locked in a hospital.
    • His university professor's past is equally bad if not worse. He was forced to change his name (because it sounds like Khrushchev), isolated for years being considered insane, and saw his girlfriend being disintegrated before him.
  • Just Think of the Potential!: The most typical argument of Major Lin Yun, when discussing various inventions and experiments.
  • Lady of War: Major Lin Yun.
  • Lack of Empathy: Both Major Lin Yun and Dr. Ding are so obsessed by their work (weapon development and theoretical physics, respectively) that they care very little about other people. However, Lin Yun is still horrified at the sight of children incinerated along with the terrorists holding them hostage, and clearly feels remorse for their deaths.
  • Lightning Gun: Or Macro-atom gun.
  • Married to the Job: Chen at one point says that for Dr. Ding physics is the single most important thing in his life. Also true for Major Lin, who may have a boyfriend but he's also in the army and they rarely meet (and he does not seem to occupy her thoughts that much).
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: While not evil per se, Major Doctor Lin Yun certainly lack empathy and, as her professor says, is fascinated by weapons she develops to the point of addiction. She sells one of her inventions to both sides of a conflict simply because she wants to see it in action.
  • Offing the Offspring: General Lin giving the order to bomb the site of a dangerous experiment that his daughter Lin Yun is trying to do.
  • Scientist vs. Soldier: Dr. Chen vs Major Lin Yun, which finally leads him to leave the base.
  • Shoot the Hostage: Ball lightning weapons are first used to kill eco-terrorists occupying a nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, the terrorists have a class of children as their hostages, and ball lightning discharges into as much matter as it takes to deplete its charge. Therefore, everyone in the plant is turned into ash, including the children.
  • Thrill Seeker: Major Lin Yun. She wears an ultra-sharp blade as a pendant on her neck and drives around with a landmine hanging from the rear-view mirror of her car because she wants to feel like she's living on the edge all the time.


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