From The Wall Street Journal:
Should sci-fi be centered on human beings and human problems, as Theodore Sturgeon insisted long ago? Or is actual science vital for producing the “sense of wonder”? Most sci-fi authors these days lean toward the focus on people, no longer generating stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s 1961 “A Fall of Moondust” or Poul Anderson’s 1963 “Shield,” which had at their core a technical problem, or a technical breakthrough.
Cixin Liu’s “Ball Lightning” . . . swings firmly the other way. At the start Mr. Liu insists that all descriptions he uses of the titular phenomenon—in which lightning takes the form of floating balls of plasma—are based on historical records, and very strange they are. People burned instantaneously to ash while the wooden stools they were sitting on are left untouched; a man’s toenails burned off without affecting his boots.
The first quest, then, is for a theory to explain this intensely selective release of energy. The second is to find a use for it, if it can be controlled. Once ozone replaces gun smoke as the scent of the battlefield, ball lightning will succeed the tank and the nuclear bomb as the ultimate war-winner.
The theory, though, is what creates the wonder. We know about microscopic fundamental particles. Is ball lightning a macroscopic fundamental particle? If so, maybe the strangeness is quantum. When Mr. Liu’s protagonist Dr. Chen, whose parents were killed by a burst of ball lightning, and his colleagues create a thunderball gun, they find it works only in the presence of an observer. If you try it with the cameras off, it remains a probability cloud.
The trouble is that sometimes it works even when they have taken all precautions. So someone is observing, but they have no idea who. One thought is that ball lightning’s victims may continue to exist in a quantum state—like ghosts, in fact, trying to communicate. But how? The head theoretician says that once “you yourself become a macro-particle in a quantum state,” understanding the world will become a lot easier. Could this be reassurance? It doesn’t feel like it.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal