Recently I’ve dedicated myself to catching up on my reading list. Various life distractions have caused me to not read nearly as much as I used to. Actually, it’s more that I haven’t been reading fiction that much lately; I’ve been more focused on news feeds and science (articles and books). I find I miss curling up for hours with a good story, so I’ve determined to return to it.
Here for Sci-Fi Saturday I thought I’d mention a couple I finished this past week: Ball Lightning, by Liu Cixin, and Dark Run, by Mike Brooks. The former is a standalone novel; the latter is the first (of so far three) in a series.
The Brooks books are sheer adventure yarns, but telling you about Ball Lightning requires a pretty hefty spoiler.
The spoiler doesn’t involve plot surprises so much as what ball lightning turns out to be. I’ll get to that in a bit. I will say that Liu Cixin, by his own admission, has picked the least likely — but most fanciful — of explanations.
The story is told from the point of view of the main character, Chen. It starts on his 14th birthday when, right in front of him, his parents are turned to ash by ball lightning that comes through their wall during a thunderstorm.
Throughout the book, such incidents leave the burned party or object maintaining its shape, but now composed entirely of ash that crumbles at first touch. That is what happens to Chen’s parents — their forms, all ash, crumble to dust at his touch.
Other effects of this precipitating incident: About one-third of the books in the glass-enclosed bookcase are converted to ash but the book shelves are pristine (likewise the stools his parents were sitting on are untouched). The frozen chicken, fish, and shrimp, in their refrigerator is cooked, but the refrigerator is unharmed and working. Chen’s tee-shirt is turned to ash, but the jacket over it is untouched. The PDA in his pocket is melted plastic.
Such are the bizarre effects of ball lightning. It can pass through solid objects. It seems to ignore the wind. It can be destructive or harmless, and there can be strange patterns to what it affects. This much is all true.
The result of this is that Chen becomes obsessed with ball lightning and devotes his life to trying to understand it.
In fact, he ultimately becomes one of the world’s leading researchers.
There is a quote from early in the book that is something of a leitmotif throughout the book: “The key to a wonderful life is a fascination with something.” I think there is a great deal of truth in that, although the story makes it clear this can go badly.
Another character, Lin Yun, also has a life obsession — a fascination with weapons, in particular “new concept” weapons, which are novel applications such as training dolphins to attach limpet mines to submarines.
When Chen meets her, she is involved in research trying to use lightning as a weapon. They become involved in a project that attempts to use ball lightning as a directed weapon.
Suffice to say there is a crucial distinction between obsession and fascination.
Okay, spoiler time.
Skip down to the Dark Run section below if you don’t want to know. (Look for the image of the book cover.)
I will mention that this spoiler does come fairly early in the book.
This is, as the author says, fanciful. In the Afterward he writes:
In fact, ball lightning is not an especially rare phenomenon, and the progress of research in recent years suggests that its mystery is close to being solved. When that day comes, one thing is certain: the scientific explanation for ball lightning will be nothing like what’s described in this book. Science fiction writers may consider many angles on a subject, but they always choose the write about the least likely.
But at the very end he adds:
One last thing: It’s the seemingly unlikeliest of possibilities in science fiction stories that tend to become reality, so in the end, who knows?
So what is this “least likely” explanation? A ball lightning turns out to be a “macro-electron” — a new form of matter with particles the size of large objects.
Some of the selective effects of ball lightning come from “quantum resonance” between the type of macro-electron and normal matter. (Part of the weapons research aspect involves finding macro-electrons with a resonance for either human flesh or silicon chips.)
And, yes, there are macro-atoms hundreds of kilometers in size.
They turn out to be very difficult to spot — ball lightning is, in fact, an excited macro-electron. The macro-electrons themselves are always present and can be detected in the air through optical and computer analysis because they bend light ever so slightly.
Super spoiler: One of the events near the end of the story involves smashing two macro-nuclei together to create macro-fusion…
Dark Run has been billed as the perfect read for those who miss Firefly and Dark Matter.
I completely agree.
While reading, I could almost visualize the Keiko and its captain, Ichabod Drift, as the Firefly and Captain Malcolm Reynolds.
The tone is very similar.
There is, perhaps, less of a connection with Dark Matter, but there are similarities, especially with the idea of a rogue ship and outlaw crew.
I think there may be an even weaker connection with The Expanse (although I’m only familiar with the TV series).
I think a fan of any of these will enjoy the Brooks books. They are all “rippin’ good yarns.”
The basic premise is familiar to any Firefly fan: the crew undertake a questionable mission that is more than it appears to be at first and which inevitably goes sour on them.
The stories are essentially about how they get out of their predicament.
These are action books. Technology is rarely discussed (just used), and there are no info dumps necessary.
The playing field is the galaxy, which is colonized by humans (no aliens). The galaxy has been divided up by the various Earth socio-political groups. Even unused solar systems often “belong” to one of those groups.
Intergalactic ships use an Alcubierre drive to get around. Per good space opera, pilots often fly by the wits and skill rather than under full computer control, especially in tight circumstances.
As you might expect, the Keiko’s pilot, Jia Chang, is a bit of a crazy woman (like many pilots). Her brother, Kuia Chang, is the ship’s engineer. One of the most interesting characters is the Māori fighter, Apirana Wahawaha.
The crew, of course, all have pasts they’ve left behind for good reason, and the general ethic is to accept each other as they are now and never ask about the past.
Captain Drift, in particular, is hiding a shameful secret (which, of course, comes out during the course of the story and causes much tension).
In this first story Drift is blackmailed (over his shameful secret) by a former associate. They are to deliver a secured cargo to a specific location on Earth at a specific time.
Failure to deliver on time means not getting paid.
Mini Spoiler: The cargo turns out to be mostly scrap metal, but one container holds an atomic bomb set to explode right at the delivery time. That former associate was, in fact, settling a major grudge.
This happens early in the story (hence the mini on the spoiler), and the bulk of the book involves their discovery of the plot and what they do about it.
Although the books were quite different, I enjoyed both and will read more by both authors.
Dark Run, in particular, was a real page-turner. I burned through it in a couple of days. I’ve already added Dark Sky and Dark Deeds to my Buy List.
Which makes sense. I loved Firefly, and I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Matter (enough that I’ll probably watch it again some day).
I didn’t take to The Expanse at first, but came to enjoy it a lot. I think the key difference there might be that Firefly and Dark Matter had a kind of sheer joy in the telling along with considerable humor. The Expanse is lot more grim and gritty (hence my initial slight distaste).
Dark Run has the joy and humor, so I took to it immediately. My only regret is not reading it sooner (I bought it a while back). I’m sure I’ll be reading the next two very soon (but there are other books queued ahead of them).
Stay reading, my friends!
August 31st, 2019 at 5:39 pm
Dark Run sounds like a fun read, and it’s in Kindle Unlimited, so I just added it. Thanks for recommending it!
One of my few beefs with The Expanse TV show is how grim they made it. The books are gritty but don’t feel that bleak. One of the things the books manage to establish is the Rocinante as a place you wouldn’t mind inhabiting for a while, with its crew as people you would like to hang around with.
The authors are heavily involved in the show, so not sure why they changed it. Maybe it’s not conscious, just coming from actually inhabiting the heads of the characters in the books. But for whatever reason, the book version of most of the characters seem more likable.
August 31st, 2019 at 6:09 pm
I wonder if the change in character character in The Expanse was driven by the producers and has to do with our current love affair for anti-heroes. We seem to still love our heroes, but have some dark need for them to be lesser… seems like an ego thing to me.
It’s a trend I’ve been seeing for a while now. I think it’s reflected in the difference between Roddenberry’s view of Vulcans versus Rick Berman’s.
I’ve been watching, on Hulu, an old lawyer show, The Practice, and for reasons I’ll post about next week (I think), it’s gotten harder and harder to watch because the main character, Bobby Donnell (played by Dylan McDermott), is such an asshole. That bastard can’t have a conversation without yelling. Really gets under my skin.
I think you’ll enjoy Dark Run! You might also enjoy Ball Lightning if you don’t mind the science fantasy aspects. The macro stuff is bad enough, but there’s some veritable quantum magic that comes along for the ride.
September 1st, 2019 at 7:55 am
I think you’re right that there’s a preference these days for antiheroes. Or at least flawed characters. I know I generally prefer somewhat realistic characters to paragons of virtue. But Mal on Firefly seems far more antihero to me than Holden on The Expanse.
I think the difference is that everyone on Firefly, including the villains, are generally more likable than people on The Expanse. The show goes out of its way to initially show every character’s darkest side, then gradually let’s us see the sympathetic side in them. The problem is that puts a noirish pall on everything, and I’m not a fan of noir. And again, it’s not something I feel in the books.
On Ball Lightning, I don’t rule it out. I read and enjoyed Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem. I’m just more attracted to space stories. (Which Liu does write his share of.)
September 1st, 2019 at 11:25 am
“Or at least flawed characters. I know I generally prefer somewhat realistic characters to paragons of virtue.”
I seem to accept them more than many. A common complaint about Superman is that he’s too much of a goodie two shoes, but I never felt that. Likewise with the Vulcans, I actually liked the idea of a species that was superior to us in just about every way.
(Although TOS made it clear Vulcans still had their flaws. Kirk regularly beat Spock at Tri-chess, and there’s that key episode, The Galileo Seven where Spock learns important lessons about leadership and taking an illogical outside chance.)
“But Mal on Firefly seems far more antihero to me than Holden on The Expanse.”
In many ways, yes. Mal was more the outlaw. But Holden, as you say, was the bigger asshole, and I think that’s where I tend to get off the bus — with overly emotional assholes. I vastly prefer characters with some sense and control.
“The show goes out of its way to initially show every character’s darkest side,”
And that’s what I meant about “anti-heroes” — characters with way too much dark side for my preference. I think it’s because I see people like that all the time in real life.
I prefer stories about what we can be, about achieving and being better. I have no desire to wallow in “real life” in stories.
And some part of me thinks this modern trend for assholes says something about our lack of motivation to be better morally. One reason I adore the show The Good Place is that it’s about moral philosophy and people trying very hard to be better.
I think we’ve culturally bought into the idea that we’re all assholes anyway, so what’s the point? Let’s embrace that inner asshole and go all the way. No worries, we’re all assholes anyway, right?
As for The Expanse, it’s encouraging to hear the asshole aspect isn’t part of the books. Might check them out one of these days after all.
“I read and enjoyed Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem.”
I’ve been reading about it (and what I believe is the sequel trilogy, The Dark Forest (I think it’s called)). It sort of doesn’t sound like my cup of tea somehow… and several reviewers have mentioned his striking lack of science hardness in certain areas.
As I mentioned, I was struck by it in Ball Lightning, so I guess that’s just how he rolls. Nothing wrong with that, but it does push him down my TO READ list a bit.
There’s also a tone thing… reviewers say he gets into 1950s pulp SF tone at times… not sure I noticed that, but some of the verbiage felt odd to me… like the dialog in subtitled Chinese movies often does. I think the translation was top-notch, but I also think Chinese and English may have differences that just don’t translate well no matter what. Sometimes the writing seems oddly stilted.
September 1st, 2019 at 12:45 pm
“As for The Expanse, it’s encouraging to hear the asshole aspect isn’t part of the books.”
Hopefully it’s not a case of it being there and me just being oblivious. I think of the fact that I thought of Holden as a middle aged blond haired guy when reading the books. One of the authors said that was a common sentiment among their readers, but noted that Holden was initially described as being about 30 with dark hair, and observing that authors have limited control over how readers visualize their characters and world.
(I also visualized Amos as much more like Vincent D’Onofrio (with his head shaved, as Amos’ is in the books) than the actor they got to play him, and Naomi as more oriental than black (she’s described in the books as being a mix). Alex is really the only character where the actor roughly matched the book version for me.)
On Cixin Liu, The Three Body Problem had a similar flavor. It was heavily science based, but took a lot of liberties with that science, such as getting the topology of the Alpha Centauri system wrong, and also had a big quantum finish. And I often found the things the characters said and did odd, almost certainly due to the cultural differences. For example, the protagonist has a wife, who is never named and barely mentioned.
September 1st, 2019 at 2:02 pm
“Hopefully it’s not a case of it being there and me just being oblivious.”
I think you’re probably more of an astute reader for things like that than I am, so if you missed it I surely would!
“On Cixin Liu, The Three Body Problem had a similar flavor.”
Yeah, I’ve gotten that sense from the reviews. Plus I’m not sure how interested I am in a story about humans facing a vastly superior race. Apparently the story is kind of a downer, which isn’t something I need in my life right now.
“For example, the protagonist has a wife, who is never named and barely mentioned.”
The central character of Ball Lightning is known only as Chen (or Dr. Chen). I searched for all occurrences of “Chen” and never found any other name.
It has been said that no westerner can ever fully under the Chinese mind, and I suspect the reverse is true. Genuinely different cultures!
September 1st, 2019 at 2:21 pm
“Apparently the story is kind of a downer,”
There are definitely aspects of it that are. It begins in worst parts of the Cultural Revolution, and features a character who comes out of it with an intense hatred for humanity, which becomes a plot point. Although I recall it ending on a hopeful note. That said, I haven’t read the other two books in the trilogy, so maybe it all ends in tears.
“which isn’t something I need in my life right now.”
I’m with you. It’s one reason I don’t pay much attention to politics these days. I just don’t need that right now.
“The central character of Ball Lightning is known only as Chen (or Dr. Chen).”
Maybe it’s something like the protagonist in The Time Machine, who is only ever identified as the Time Traveler, or the Man with No Name in the Dollars trilogy.
But yeah, there are definitely stark cultural divides. I watched The Wandering Earth (also based on a Cixin Liu story) and often found the character reactions baffling.
September 1st, 2019 at 4:15 pm
“That said, I haven’t read the other two books in the trilogy, so maybe it all ends in tears.”
Apparently there’s a sequel trilogy (Remembrance of Earth’s Past), so the first one can’t end in total disaster. (I get the impression the trisolarians haven’t even shown up on Earth, yet, during the first trilogy. They are expected to arrive in the second.)
The more I read about it, the more I think it’ll be a while before I get around to reading them. Which is a little disappointing, since I was eager to explore Chinese SF.
“I’m with you. It’s one reason I don’t pay much attention to politics these days. I just don’t need that right now.”
Indeed. As I think I mentioned, it’s the absurdity and ugliness of real life (which I’m not in position to ignore) that makes me really not want it in my fiction. I don’t need fairy tales (don’t actually like them, either), but I do very much want honest, capable, intelligent, rational, likeable characters.
With TV shows that last one is almost the most important. I’m just not going to spend all that many hours with someone I can’t stand. (Movies, maybe, if the story is good, not season after season of a TV show.)
“Maybe it’s something like the protagonist in The Time Machine, who is only ever identified as the Time Traveler, or the Man with No Name in the Dollars trilogy.”
Ha! Yes, or Dashiell Hammett’s famous no-name detective, the “Continental Op.”
And maybe also “The Prisoner” (although many think he’s John Drake from Danger Man despite that Patrick McGoohan consistently insisted there was no connection — in fact, Drake was a NATO operative while the character in The Prisoner was clearly a British agent).
“I watched The Wandering Earth (also based on a Cixin Liu story) and often found the character reactions baffling.”
I used to watch a lot of Asian martial arts movies, and I’ve also gone through phases of watching a lot of Japanese anime, and that is something I’ve frequently experienced. Very different cultural values in places, plus very different cultural history and sensibilities.
September 22nd, 2019 at 9:04 pm
I just started reading Redshirts by John Scalzi.
Outstanding! Utterly brilliant! Hysterical! (Post coming soon!)
The basic plot: Imagine the various ensigns on the starship Enterprise realized their predicament — that being on an away mission was likely to be certain death…
September 22nd, 2019 at 10:30 pm
About halfway through… This is so good on so many levels! I love everything about this story! One of the best things I’ve read in ages. As good and brilliant as Galaxy Quest (and kind of related)!
September 23rd, 2019 at 1:16 am
Finished it, and it was awesome! I may have to read it again!