Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I am deeply conflicted about how to talk about this book.

On the one hand, I am aware that the Anglophone world–particularly the US world–is resistant to translating works out of simple inertia, and that because of this, writers who write in a language other than English will be considered disproportionately representative of How Chinese Books Do In the US (or How Books Translated From Any East Asian Language Do In the US, or How Translated Books Do In the US). I really want to see more books translated from Chinese and in fact from every language. I want to listen more to basically everybody. Being able to talk and listen is good for art and also for the rest of the world. Yay, works in translation, yay!

However. However however however.

I don’t actually like this book or think it’s very good. I think its audience will be pretty narrow because of what book it is, not because it’s in translation. (Ken Liu’s brilliant anthology Invisible Planets demonstrates the diversity of Chinese SF! Let’s all read that and preorder the next one!)

Ball Lightning is a structure of book I read a lot of 25 years ago. It is the kind of science fiction novel that’s basically All (Zany) Science All The Time. Many people doing calculations, tracking down data, arguing about what data counts, running into dead-ends in The Science, finding new inspiration in The Science. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this structure of book, and I still enjoy some of them. If. IF.

If they are not entirely based around staggering levels of sexism, which Ball Lightning unfortunately is. There is exactly one female character of note, and she is by turns a psychopath and…well, here’s one line: “The old unshakable, goal-oriented major was now a fragile, helpless little girl.” Uh…huh. Our two choices are alluring unstoppable killing machine and alluring breakable child–now united in the same person! Because why would there be any other women in the world ever? And why would the one who exists have any depth?

At first I thought this was going to be an implicitly, peripherally sexist book–that all the pilots and all the officers and all the scientists would be male (okay, to be fair, there are two dead women, one a clingy mother and one a mysterious science-ghostly presence), and it would be a matter of the author just…not considering any other options. But no! No, the crashing sexism is central to the plot! The entire resolution of the book turns around it!

There are not many books that are speculation about ball lightning and various quantum effects (oh lord, the various quantum effects…), so if you like that and find it interesting and are willing to keep in your head that men are not the only people and this book is completely wretched about gender, by all means show the publishers that there’s an audience for science fiction in translation. Otherwise there will be more opportunities soon, and…you can go for those instead.

If after all that you still want this book, you can order it through our Amazon link.

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