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Readers of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy cannot call themselves strangers to nihilistic cosmology. This trio of strongly physics-forward science fiction novels navigates bleak possibilities not only for alien life and first contact scenarios, but also around humanity’s ability to rise above paranoia, trauma, cruelty, and related self-destructive impulses to save itself.

Rarely, though, does the content of our stories align so well with our attempts to disseminate them further into our societies, as in the curious case of two TV adaptations of The Three-Body Problem, the first book in Liu’s trilogy. Attempts at a live-action series began in 2015, but were initially foiled by the technical demands of the source material, which involve significant immersion into a mysterious videogame that gives the book its name.

YooZoo Pictures partnered with Netflix in September 2020 to overcome those production problems, in part by working with showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss (of Game of Thrones fame and notoriety). However, this attempt at collaboration was stymied by two brushes with real-world violence: one speaking to systemic cruelty and the other, personal.

The first came that same month, when US senators and average citizens called for Netflix to reconsider the project on account of Liu’s 2019 comments in a New Yorker interview. There, he had expressed support of the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of Uighur people in Xinjiang province, which is recognized as, at bare minimum, a case of “serious human rights violations” by the UN. Senators asked Netflix not to normalize China’s actions by producing work in collaboration with an author endorsing them. Netflix condemned Liu’s comments but emphasized that the author was not the creator of the show.

Then in December of 2020, collaborators Lin Qi and Zhao Jilong of YooZoo Pictures were poisoned—Lin to death, on December 25. A coworker was named as the culprit, with possible motives stemming from a competitive workplace mentality around the Netflix deal. Lin’s death was a tragedy that also (of secondary importance, next to the loss of his life) compounded the delicacy of producing an adaptation of Liu’s work that might have bridged the gap between Netflix and China for key distribution issues. (China keeps Netflix behind a “Great Firewall,” and holds adaptations of its works to stringent ideological standards.) Filming for the English adaptation nevertheless began in November 2021 and finished in August 2022. A series teaser was announced in June 2023, for a January 2024 Netflix release: one year after the thirty-episode Chinese adaptation started airing on WeTV and Rakuten Viki.

This latter production, also by YooZoo Pictures, was distributed with oversight from China Central Television, and, much like Liu’s original book, follows a different narrative arc for its Chinese audience than the one that Liu’s English readers will recognize. Benioff and Weiss’s version is also expected to be more action-forward than the slow-build and highly philosophical outing that directors Yang Lei and Vincent Yang presented to their primarily Chinese viewership. One character’s presence in the teaser suggests that the Western version might also skip ahead to more combat-oriented elements of Liu’s sequel, The Dark Forest.

For viewers who prefer the action-oriented approach, there might be good cause to wait for Benioff and Weiss’s version. But for those comfortable with “quieter” narrative outings, or who have the read the book and are curious to see how its contents are represented for different audiences, the Chinese TV adaptation, Three-Body, might offer an insightful viewing experience all its own.

Here are few reasons why:

One key difference between the Chinese version of Liu’s series opener, and the story as it showed up in English translation, is the order in which Ye Wenjie’s sections are included in the overall narrative. Ye’s life story carries her through the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, which Liu originally described in his opening chapters. However, as Ken Liu notes in his translator’s introduction, the book was first published near an auspicious anniversary of that terrible period of state-backed, citizen-driven policing of thought, word, and action, so Chinese editors gentled this difficult history’s inclusion in The Three-Body Problem by moving components of Ye’s narrative to the middle of the tale. Ken Liu then returned Ye’s painful backstory to the outset of the text: a move not only feasible because of the West’s different approach to censorship, but perhaps also necessary to onboard Western readers to elements of contemporary Chinese culture and its most haunted histories. The core of the story, after all, is one in which state politics are tantamount to understanding various character behaviours and causality chains in the plot. Without a clearer grasp of this context, the personal restraint and indirect avenues of societal resistance adopted by various actors here might not register as effectively with a Western readership.

Three-Body follows the structural choices made for the Chinese-language novel, but to a different overall effect in the live-action production. With Ye’s backstory given to viewers more gradually, we’re invited into this world primarily through the other major protagonist: Wang Miao, a nanomaterials expert recruited by a brash, irreverent detective named Shi Qiang to figure out the cause of a string of suicides among more theoretical-leaning scientists.

Wang is grounded in practical functions for science. He’s both an expert in his research topics, and also just enough out of his depth with theoretical physics to require explanations of the field’s major questions, along with analysis of other data he collects, from other specialists throughout. This isn’t just useful for educating the viewer in critical scientific concepts as we go; it’s also an excellent representation of science in general, in contrast with a common overuse of “the scientist” character in many SF series: namely, as someone conveniently knowledgeable in most every subfield imaginable.

Many Chinese viewers will already be familiar with a common professional anxiety in other Communist eras, but Three-Body does not take this background knowledge for granted. Rather, it highlights that Wang’s pragmatic scientific leanings, however seemingly value-neutral in the present, have a complex history in a setting that was once deeply suspicious of more abstract uses of scientific research and quick to stigmatize those interested in such pursuits. Early in Ye’s backstory, we see how easily a shift from rigidly functional science to more holistic thinking about a given topic—say, empirically grounded recognition of the ecological damage caused by mass clear-cutting—can place one in hot water: accused, arrested, and summarily punished as a traitor to the values of the Cultural Revolution.

But Liu’s treatment of this theme is no simple repudiation of Maoist China, because abstract science and its practitioners becomes a very real site of concern in the twenty-first century, too: an issue that Three-Body advances through Wang’s interactions with Shi. The detective suspects that proximity to an organization called The Frontiers of Science has had a cult-like influence on the dead theoretical physicists, but he also has high hopes that Wang’s pragmatic scientific approach will offer some defense against their mind tricks. Wang isn’t initially keen on infiltrating the group, but one of the deaths troubles him: that of the brilliant Yang Dong, whom he cannot fathom having killed herself. What possible discovery could have destroyed her will to live when she was on the cusp of both personal and professional success? And why does her mother, a scientist in her own right, seem so curiously impassive about the death?

Wang hasn’t gone far into his exploration of The Frontiers of Science, which dabbles in theoretical questions that test the limits of scientific knowability and present terrible possibilities for extraterrestrial life, before he is exposed to a few breakdowns in the physics of his world. Before long, he has a countdown clock literally running all the time in his field of vision and has witnessed the background noise of the universe apparently change just to send him a similar message. Its warning? That he must stop advancing his field research, before he makes everything worse.

Wang still wants answers, of course, but if even traditional scientific methodologies no longer offer coherent data sets, what other choice is there, but to engage further with the mysterious society that has made these breakdowns of physics apparent to him? To play the fully immersive videogame they direct him to, in which players must figure out the rules behind a world’s seemingly random physics engine, to keep their in-game civilization alive long enough to reach the technological turning point for escape into the stars?

This, Wang does—and to great success—after solving a few key puzzles that escalate the gaming experience for all its players. But also, on a more personal level, he follows a hunch to better understand why Yang Dong’s mother wasn’t more surprised by her daughter’s death.

This is where Three-Body’s structural choice is especially rewarding. We first experience Ye’s story through glimpses of her youth in a labor camp and isolated research facility, and also through her later life as an only somewhat bereaved mother. As such, there is a lot of time in this thirty-episode series for the background radiation of the Cultural Revolution to normalize Ye’s strangely impassive behaviour under more straightforward explanations. She’s had a hard life. She’s lost plenty. She’s simply learned to resign herself to those losses.

…Right?

In the English version, we’re going to see the trauma visited upon Ye—the experiences of human cruelty that will eventually drive her to a highly misanthropic set of retaliatory actions—concurrent with our nanomaterials scientist’s descent into this maddening world of theoretical physics and the looming threat of alien invasion. And that narrative approach will accord well with a common confidence, often borne out in Western storytelling traditions,  that “the truth will out”: that injustice exists, but always in ways that we can see and access and incorporate from the outset in our analysis of the problems in our world. It’s a highly empowered form of storytelling … and it can lead us to forget that many forms of injustice, many traumas in this life, are not on the surface. Rather, they’re endured without recourse, in often terrible isolation, and taken to the early graves of ever so many.

This structural difference in Three-Body also somewhat mitigates a clear and common failing not only in Liu’s book, but quite a bit of “hard” science fiction: a persistent body of gender stereotypes around women as passive and intrinsically inclined to certain life aspirations and values over others. Not exactly celebrated for its characterization in general, The Three-Body Problem nevertheless finds deft treatment for the flatness of certain characters in its Chinese adaptation. Ye’s character, for instance, transforms before viewers’ eyes in this TV series from a passive woman merely bearing witness and enduring (the stereotype), to one whose experiences of cruelty under the Cultural Revolution in fact forged a depth of loathing for her fellow human beings that she enacted in the most ruinous of ways. Ye’s choice doesn’t emerge as a “twist,” so much as an argument allowed to play out carefully and in full before reaching a devastatingly logical conclusion that reverberates back through the rest of the series, challenging every superficial view of Ye held before.

Another reason to watch Three-Body, though, is to study the characters who not only remain flat but also gain a whole other dimension of caricature in this Chinese TV adaptation: the Westerners. Even just from the teaser for 3 Body Problem, it’s clear that Benioff and Weiss’s version is going to be situated a great deal more within a Western context, which will absolutely change the political flavour of the story. But those who only view the Western version will also miss out on an extremely fascinating part of the Chinese production: a stark reversal in the ideological and ethnic compressions that are usually endured by Asian characters in Western media, especially when such a character is made to stand in for a whole ideological or political movement.

After Wang and Shi realize the extent to which Ye is involved in a first-contact situation that finds The Frontiers of Science internally divided over how best to prepare humanity for what lies ahead, we’re introduced to Ye’s counterpart under capitalism. This is a man whose affluent father, a capitalist who committed environmental atrocity for profit, filled him with a similar loathing for humanity, and a desire to see his species brought low that others might thrive.

Easily the worst performances in Three-Body come from the Western secondary actors, generally performing as world leaders in conference calls or as part of a ruthless hit team—but Mike Evans is on a whole other level. The gloss of capitalism he represents, as a site of inevitable sickness and derangement, comes to us on screen as if made for a Chinese audience familiar with discussing the West and its excesses in this highly caricatured way. Witnessing the work of his extremist organization, and receiving his backstory through Ye, makes for quite an affecting case study in how Western countries are viewed outside media circles that take for granted both the centrality of our ideas and our complexity as individuals.

Western discourse about capitalism and its negative impact on the environment is certainly active, but its nuance in legacy and entertainment media leaves much to be desired. It might be difficult to reckon with uncomfortable similarities between China under Cultural Revolution and many forms of extractivism taken for granted in Western storytelling. However, if we’re all driving ourselves to ecological ruin, would it not be useful to recognize the role of dogmatic adherence to state ideologies—any state ideologies—in bringing about these terrible ends?

Three-Body’s differences in storytelling will leap out to Westerners familiar only with the story in English translation, and it might unnerve or even bore folks looking forward to the action-packed outing by Benioff and Weiss in January 2024. But the Chinese TV adaptation will also reward viewers interested in the more philosophical aspects of Liu’s world, along with those keen to better understand not only the cultural differences that inform Chinese and Western science fiction, but also the real-world politics that shape our access to certain stories in the first place: on the page, on TV, and in the troubled, wounded hearts of fellow human beings.



M. L. Clark is a Canadian immigrant to Medellín, Colombia, and a writer of speculative fiction, reviews, poetry, and cultural essays.
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