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…
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!