More 3 Body Problems

Ian Parker is watching and waiting.


The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Liu Cixin, often referred to by the name of the first book, The Three-Body Problem, has been fantastically popular in China. An impending invasion of Earth frames the doom-laden and ineluctable sequence of events in these very long-view hard sci-fi books. The trilogy functions, among other things, as state-sanctioned propaganda. It was only a matter of time before television networks would have a crack at putting it on screen, and then the question was whether Netflix would ramp up the impending hi-tech tension or domesticate it, turn it into a relationship drama. It also turns out that the Western adaptation accentuates its ideological character, but now as something hostile instead of favourable to the Chinese state.

The recently-dropped Netflix eight-episode version 3 Body Problem confines itself to the first of the books, as does the Chinese thirty-episode Three-Body available on Amazon Prime, which is a little disappointing, but perhaps inevitable given the impossibly huge time-scope of the trilogy. Chinese viewers, who can access the series via VPN – a technically illegal but still necessary and tolerated communication channel for business enterprises – have some complaints about what Netflix has done with the thing. These are mainly legitimate complaints about the ideological mirroring of Chinese state uses of the trilogy – a narrative of technological supremacy which includes some other unpleasant and oppressive themes – by Western media.

London calling

One noticeable aspect of the Netflix adaptation is the recentring of the narrative, and the predicament of the main characters, from China to Britain. Insofar as the United Nations comes into the frame it is presented as an ally of London. Chinese émigré figures, and a Chinese heritage cop (from Manchester, we learn at point in a jokey throwaway line) live and work here, their lives bound up with other scientists and entrepreneurs (two professional worlds tightly linked together in the series).

At the same time as the action is relocated from China to Britain, blame for our predicament, impending invasion, is insidiously and repeatedly located in China, and while technological development in the West is portrayed as our possible salvation, Chinese industrialisation is presented as of a piece with brutality and environmental destruction. So, the key moment when a Chinese scientist, Ye Wenjie, responds to a message from the “San-Ti” aliens, after being warned by one of them not to respond, not to answer, is from a gigantic radio telescope set amidst an area of miserable deforestation. (A Westerner is there trying to save a local endangered species.) When Ye Wenjie reasons that Earth is unable to solve its own problems, and needs help from beyond our solar system, it is as a Chinese citizen, as speaking specifically about what has happened in China.

Scenes related to the Cultural Revolution have triggered unease in China © Ed Miller/Netflix
Scenes related to the Cultural Revolution have triggered unease in China © Ed Miller/Netflix

This is driven home by graphic depiction of the Maoist 1967 “Cultural revolution” in which Ye Wenjie’s father is beaten to death on stage for refusing to recant his claim that “Western imperialist” Einsteinian relativity theory has something to offer physics, and by his refusal to accept that science definitively disproves religion. These scenes, biographical background to our desperate scientist deciding to respond to the aliens, pretty faithfully reproduce scenes from the first book (and they do not appear as the framing of her decision in the Chinese television adaptation). These chickens come home to roost when the aliens drive scientists to despair by showing them that their tried and trusted physics no longer works; failed science now opens up a deadly gap in belief, an opening to faith instead of dispelling it.


The “Three-Body Problem” itself is an astronomical puzzle about the hazardous interplay of gravity between three planets, and consequent oscillation between brief periods of stability and times of absolute chaos. The Liu Cixin trilogy plays a little with metaphors of gravity and irresolvable conflict that this astronomical puzzle gives us, but there is one curious absence that the Netflix series (as well as the book trilogy, though that perhaps is a little more understandable for a series that was originally published in China between 2006 and 2010) revolves around, skirts.

The trilogy makes a good deal in the 2008 second book, The Dark Forest, of the danger of making your presence in the universe felt, of making yourself knowable, even visible. It is much safer not to alert possible enemies to your existence. In the “dark forest” you should hide yourself in the dark to keep your enemies in the dark. There are intimations here of China’s own experience of colonisation, of an encounter with the West as an alien and, it turned out, hostile force that wanted to know China all the better in order to better exploit it. There are also echoes in the trilogy of an oscillation between chaos and order which is eventually resolved in favour of order, a hope for order and obedience to order.

So, we have an encounter with the West in the Liu Cixin books and in the Chinese television adaptation which is traumatic and which then results in suspicion of future invasion and colonisation. The way this is played out is within the frame of Chinese state nationalism, bad enough, but now, in the Netflix series, we are faced with something just as problematic. Implicit in the series is that one threat to Earth replicates (and this is an implicit and repetitive theme) one major threat to the West, China itself.

And what is missing, mysteriously absent from a geopolitical world of “three bodies?” Is it not Russia as a third imperial state player on the world stage? The closest we get to an “international” dimension of Earth’s preparations for resistance at the United Nations is the appointment of three “Wallfacers” tasked with coming up in the secret space of their minds with options to save us; these three are a Black Brit, a Chinese general, and a Kurdish woman who, we are told, defeated ISIS. In this respect, the world is now closed for us as viewers around a relationship between China and the West, with silence about the role of other actual “third bodies” in the geopolitical order, and this in such a way as to replicate China’s own current colonial obsession with the threat of Islam in Xinxiang. Science breaks down and paves the way to faith, including faith in the aliens, who are addressed as “our Lord.”

So, the Netflix series presents us with the impending danger of alien invasion – and the series does capture the awful inevitability of that in its eight tense episodes – and does this quite neatly, and ideologically. At one moment it displaces the threat of alien invasion from China to the stars, and at the next it reminds us who might really be to blame for the mess we are in.


And here is another aspect of the relocation of the centre of action and of the source of the problem, that the drama now revolves around; the focus is on a little coterie of friends who flit from university laboratory to penthouse apartment to seaside holiday home while agonising about what on earth is going on. It is certainly the case that Liu Cixin is not so good writing about relationships, but Netflix puts relationships at the heart of the eight episodes, with some of the scenes resembling a kind of other-worldly Richard Curtis rom-com. This could not be further from the feel of the books (or of the Chinese adaptation).

This little world, of friends who work together and support each other, who love each other and grieve with each other, is presented as so very different, so very other to technological-development obsessed inscrutable Chinese state bureaucracy. Images of threat that underpin the Netflix series are in this way loaded with significance, with suspicion of China that simply reverses the ideological polarities of the original books (and of the Chinese television series). It makes for good viewing but bad politics.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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