3 Bodies And A Trilogy Of Potential Problems

3 Body Problem

THE recent success of the Dune films, based on Frank Herbert’s best-selling novel of the same title, has injected more interest into the science-fiction genre. It’s a good way to pique the interest in scientific principles in a wider and younger audience.

While some franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek speak of action and principles of humanity and good versus evil, others can be more scientific and challenging to those who may not be inclined towards the laws of physics and mathematics.

To help bridge the divide, there are more accessible authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlein, who are ranked among the big minds of this genre. 

But science-fiction is certainly not the exclusive domain of the West, and the relatively recent emergence of Cixin Liu on the scene has helped to widen the body of sci-fi literature.

Liu’s modern sci-fi classic, The Three-Body Problem — often referred to as 3 Body — is his imagining of a physics conundrum that hasn’t been played out in real life. It bridges the human condition with the laws of physics, and with liberal lashings of aliens.

3 Bodies Rock

3 Body is the first in a trilogy, known as the Remembrance of Earth’s Past. The book covers an impending alien invasion triggered by a dissatisfied individual, and humanity’s struggle to overcome seemingly insurmountable technological disadvantages against an enemy about which they know little.

Netflix’s 8-part adaptation of Liu’s modern science fiction classic, recently debuted for the global binge-watching audience.

After the underwhelming ending of their previous book to TV show adaptation, Game Of Thrones, how would the writer/producer combo of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss bounce back to tackle a work of Chinese science fiction?

Cixin Liu, 3 Body Problem
Cixin Liu, engineer turned sci-fi author.

Book Versus Show

Fortunately for them, the show has received mostly positive reviews, and the Hollywood duo can now begin a redemption arc of sorts. Despite the show’s many changes, hardcore fans of the book have expressed that it captures most major plot points and, more importantly, the essence of the story.

Critics of the book are particularly enjoying the show’s fleshed-out characters. While the book is highly coherent and respectful of scientific principles, most of which come from physics, the story is conceptual and characters often come across as flat.

This could be a result of Liu’s background as an engineer and his approach to storytelling: He admits that he develops the stories around the science, and the characters can often become an afterthought.

The idea for The Three Body Problem, the first book in the Remembrance Of Earth’s Past trilogy, came out of a hypothesis grounded in physics. 

Liu explains it thus: “When I think of the three-body problem, I can’t help but think, what if there would be a civilisation affected by three stars moving without patterns and clues?”

Not the kind of thing most people would be thinking about, but Liu takes it a step further, to find out what kind of life would be in that civilisation, which becomes the raison d’etre of the book.

Liu notes that based on current astronomy, such a phenomenon with planets affected by each other’s gravity has yet to be observed. In most real cases of three-star systems, one star orbits around the other two regularly.

Written Success

The book sold 1.2 million copies in China before its translation by American author Ken Liu won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015. Adaptations of Liu Cixin’s other books have done well on the big screen. 

The sci-fi comedy, Crazy Alien, based on his short story, The Village Teacher, and the adaptation of The Wandering Earth did well in the box office in China.

While the 3 Body novel features predominately Chinese characters, several roles in the Netflix version have been diversified, with many of the book’s original characters being split into several roles, likely to enable some continuity across seasons.

In early 2023, Chinese conglomerate Tencent financed a 30-episode, big-budget TV adaptation called Three Body, which was well received by the domestic audience. While many from the mainland see this as a more faithful adaptation of the story, it is likely that this format would not have sat well with foreign audiences.

This long adaptation of the story also featured many additions, changes, omissions, as well as direct pop culture references such as TikTok dances, and a famous Chinese comedian present in a role that does not exist in the book.

Liu has minimised his involvement with adaptations of his book since, he feels, authors hardly feel content with them. But, that said, he was pleased with the Tencent version since it was faithful to the story.

3 Body Problem
Tencent created a 30-part version of 3 Body Problem.

A New Generation of Domestic Role Models

Beijing-born Liu grew up moving around the country as his father changed jobs. His first encounter with science-fiction was in a box of books under his bed, which included a few sci-fi works. Drawn to the fiction built around scientific principles, Liu’s books would include a mix of reverence and fear about the known and vastly unknown universe.

The much-awarded writer’s books have sold well in China, and endorsements from high-profile Western personalities like former US President Barack Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, helped raise his profile and standing internationally.

The Remembrance Of Earth’s Past series was the first Chinese sci-fi translated into English and marks the beginning of an era of enabling foreign audiences to experience previously unexplored literature. Liu won the 2015 Hugo award, one of the genre’s most prestigious honours, being the first Asian author to do so and the first author to win with a translated submission.

Liu explained that Chinese sci-fi, while having a long history, had become incoherent due to cultural stagnation. He says it dates back to the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) but was disrupted by wars and social unrest, resulting in a peristaltic development.

Liu explains the impact of politics on sci-fi and its role as a tool to further China’s advancement of scientific knowledge in this British Library interview.

Many Bodied Contribution

The first book is widely seen as a build-up to what’s to come in the remaining books. The Netflix version does well to blend parts of later books into the first season and set up some of the future episodes should   Netflix continue with the rest of the trilogy.

For the uninitiated, the show may encourage a new wave of people to engage with the book and the Remembrance Of Earth’s Past trilogy.

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