Ball Lightning

by Liu Cixin

The novel follows the experiences of a first-person protagonist, Chen, whose family was killed by a ball lightning while he was in high school. Both traumatized and inspired by that experience, he makes the investigation of ball lightning his life's work, first getting his PhD in the subject, then exploring the phenomena through both applied and theoretical research. During the research, a military technology researcher Lin Yuan who wants to turn his science into a weapon and brings him in to a weapons development research team. With the help of a theoretical physicist, Ding Yi, they recognize that ball lightning is not formed by lightning conditions, but rather when lightning encounters "macro-electrons" hypercharging the electrons until they express their energy. They learn how to capture these macro-electrons, and turn them into the a weapon which can destroys targeted types of matter; wood, stone, or even microprocessors. After building a weapon and specialized military unit to use the device, they successfully deploy the weapon against anti-technology eco-terrorists who try to blow up a nuclear plant, but kill a group of schoolchildren that had been held hostage. Disillusioned, Chen leaves the military research group.

Using a technology they developed in the ball lightning research, Chen develops a strategy for tracking tornado formation. American scientists combine that technology with missiles to suppress tornado formation in the American Midwest. When war breaks out between the U.S. and China, the U.S. uses a similar application of Chen's technology to form tornadoes as a weapon to destroy naval vessels.

Living daily life in wartime China, Chen is surprised to one day find that all the microprocessors in the city have been incinerated. Ding Yi finds Chen and recounts that he and Lin's research group had progressed beyond macro-electrons to find macro-nuclei as well, bringing about the possibility of creating "macro-fusion," which would combine the power of conventional nuclear weapons with the matter-selectivity of ball lightning. The military, fearing the consequences of such technology, shut down the research, but Lin disobeys orders and starts the planned macro-fusion trial, at the cost of her own life. The reaction destroyed microprocessors across a swathe of China, and as the world recognizes the power of any future macro-fusion events to wipe out advanced weaponry across a theater of war, an armistice is signed.

At the end of the novel, an American ball lightning researcher visits Chen and they discuss his latest research. The Americans had found that in several trials, ball lightning behaved as though an observer was present, despite the experiment being held deep in a mineshaft with no human observers; thus foreshadowing the Trisolarians' silent watch on humanity from the Three-Body Problem.