Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu

I just recently finished reading the book Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu.

If that author looks familiar, it’s because he’s the Chinese sci-fi author of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past Series, which includes The Three-Body Problem (TBP), The Dark Forest, and Death’s EndThe Three-Body Problem was the most talked about book in sci-fi reader circles in 2014 and 2015 and is the book that won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

This book is one part prequel to TBP  and one part completely separate story.  Some of the characters from TBP appear in this story in events that take place many years before TBP.  However, the focus of this story is not the aliens that appear in TBP and its sequels,

Instead, the story here is about the question of what is ball lightning and asks the question of what if ball lightning was something more than what it appears to be.

The book begins with a tragic incident involving ball lightning that turns into a lifelong scientific obsession for the main character.  Along the way, he encounters other characters who are immersed in their own lifelong obsessions.  One of those characters is a scientist who once shared the same obsession with ball lightning for much the same reason.  Another character is military officer who is obsessed with weaponizing scientific discoveries.  And a third character is another scientist who is obsessed with science for the sake of discover, dame the consequences.

Before the end, all discover that ball lightning is not a weather phenomenon involving lightning, but instead reveals a new discovery of the nature of atoms, matter, and the universe.

Ball Lightning is translated by the same translator as The Dark Forest, so the writing style will read similar to the previous book.  Once again, Cixin Liu’s scifi visions are brought to the English reading world, and once again he demonstrates why he is one of China’s best scifi authors.


The Absurdity of B Movies

Since one of my target ideas to write about here is the absurd, one of my favorite displays of the absurd, often much to the dismay of my wife, is B movies.  I think part of it goes back to watching Godzilla movies and George Pal movies as a kid and another part is the very first time I saw an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K).  I also think a large part of it is because of my love for comedic scifi and fantasy books like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker Trilogy, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Series, and the stories of Harry Harrison and Robert Sheckley.

The truth is, whether comedic scifi fans and writers want to admit it or not, the best comedic scifi really reads like a B movie.  The best B movies are the ones that end up either being funny without intending to or are so aware of the absurdity of their plot that they intentionally laugh at themselves.  The Asylum‘s mock busters are some of the best at this.

Whether it’s a combination of multiple disasters, hilariously bad science, or the most absurd giant monsters, the best B movies leave you laughing at the screen while you watch the whole world (or at least the world of the movie) go to hell in a hand basket.  The more absurd the plot and the worse the writing, the better the laughs and the better the B movie.  If there’s some incredibly weird family drama going on in one of the subplots, that’s just a bonus.

One of the decisions we made when we moved to St Louis was to discontinue cable and become cord cutters.  The $200 a month bill to watch a handful of channels was an expense we felt we could do without.  Instead, we purchased a high-speed internet account, a Roku, a Netflix and a Hulu account, and a tv antenna.  We also invested more time in our local library for books and movie “rentals”.  We’re not really missing out on anything.

I mention the cord cutting because the Roku device has access to a channel called Pluto TV, which works like a network of channels and includes channels for The Asylum, MST3K, and RiffTrax, the post-MST3K MST3Kcast project.  Between Pluto TV and some of the other Roku channels, the Roku is a B movie lovers’ dream.

Even as I wrote this, The Asylum channel was on my tv showing some movie featuring earthquakes, volcanoes, and tornadoes all happening at the same time.  There was definitely a family drama with the main father character’s oldest daughter yelling at her stepmom for not being a mom.  And before I finished writing this, the disaster movie was followed by a Cars knockoff set in Cargo North Dakota that even had orange Hot Wheels tracks showing in some of the scenes.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Veterans, Depression, Suicide, and the Correct Response

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days trying to decide how best to word/write this post.  The inspiration behind it is a couple of situations I’ve found myself in dealing with other veterans and the subject of suicide.  Two of the most heartbreaking things I’ve become aware of is:  1. The veteran community eats its own wounded; and 2. The veteran community can be among the cruelest when someone asks for help.

A lot of veterans, especially if you follow any of the veteran-oriented groups on Facebook, are very aware of and very vocal about the 22 veterans who die by suicide a day.  The number goes back to an old study and there are even questions today about whether the number is actually higher and not properly tracked,

Veterans too often play the my-experience-was-worse-than-yours-and-is-therefore-more-valid game and write off the pains and experiences of other veterans.  Not every veteran experiences even the same experience the same way.  Thus, the situation where three veterans can be in the same incident and one comes away normal, one comes away with PTSD, and one comes away with with post-traumatic growth.  This is especially troublesome when dealing with veterans who deal with depression, anxiety, and/or other mental illness issues that may not even be related to direct combat.

For starters, the suicidal brain of the depressed is already not reacting rationally.  Depression is a chemical imbalance.  The brain is not having a rational reaction to anything.  Instead, the brain is having an irrational reaction to existence in general.  The person suffering from this is not going to react positively to rational reasons why they should hold on to life.

This is where even the most well meaning of friends and loved ones can be the most dangerous.  Chastising someone about their experiences, especially with language that implies someone else is worse off, or the depressed person has no reason to be depressed is counter productive.  Most likely, your “rational” suggestions just became the permanent voice version that person’s brain now voices its own self-criticisms of the person being a burden on those around them and that they’d be better off dead.

Discounting someone’s experiences because they are not you experiences, discounting someone’s experiences because they are not “bad enough/serious enough”, or discounting someone’s experiences because of any reason that makes you look at the other individual as anything other than a person in pain, you are now a contributing factor and not part of the solution.

Want to help bring down the 22 veteran suicides a day number, reach out to your veteran friends.  Just be there.  Just listen to them.  Don’t judge.  Don’t try to solve whatever they are experiencing, just let them vent.  Let them know you are a resource they can count on anytime day or night.

Real Monsters by Toby Allen

One of my intentions in rebooting this blog was to never allow more than 3 to 5 days between posts.  In the past, I too often allowed bad days to get in the way of writing.  As often happens, one bad day without work leads to another and another and next thing I know several months have passed with no new updates.  So, this time around, I plan to rectify that with the 3 to 5 day rule.  Even if it’s a low period, I will update with something.

A while ago, I found an article or something that showed off the Real Monsters artwork by Toby Allen.  His project is intended to draw attention to mental illness.  He also makes the images available for purchase as prints, tshirts, etc.  The artwork is great and shows off a variety of mental illnesses.  The piece above is just one example.

Toby Allen’s Depression artwork stolen from ZestyDoesThings.

The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius by Nancy C. Andreasen

Ran across a couple of articles this week discussing the book, The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius by Nancy C. Andreasen.  Dr Andreasen is a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who started out with a PhD in English Literature.

The first article, A Little Weird? Prone to Depression? Blame Your Creative Brain, is actually from about seven years ago, and discusses several points about creatives and depression:

  • “We cannot afford to waste human gifts. We need to learn how to nurture the creative nature
  • Creative people have characteristics that make them more vulnerable
  • A highly original person may seem odd or strange to others
  • Creative brains have difficulty “gating” sensory input
  • Creative people are more likely to be productive and more original if surrounded by other creative people”.

The article’s author summarizes Dr Andreasen’s findings as “creatives experience higher rates of mood disorders than the general population”.

The second article, Neuroscientist Explains Five Secrets of the Creative Brain, is from about a week ago, and also discusses the connection between creatives and depression with this quote from Dr Andreasen, “Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them ‘creative geniuses.’ Some people see things other cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people (are) both”.

The article’s author reveals the five secrets to be:

  • “Many Creatives Are Polymaths
  • Creatives Are Mostly Self-Taught
  • Creatives Are a Persistent Bunch
  • Creatives Get Their Best Ideas at Rest
  • Creatives Have a Ton of Ideas”.

As is always the case with depression or any other mental illness, your experience may differ from what is described in this book.  Needless to say, this book now occupies a spot on my must read list.