The Failure of the Three-Body Problem


China finds itself estranged from its own cultural production, excluded from the very discourse of universality it had sought to engage. The experiment of harnessing the forces of global capitalism to articulate Chinese values as an alternative modernity to Western hegemony appears to have reached an impasse.

Netflix’s recent adaptation of the original The Three-Body Problem highlights how the cultural industry inevitably filters and transforms source material through the lens of artistic interpretation and commercial considerations. This observation transcends the question of fidelity to the original work. The potential for distortion is intrinsic to the very structures and processes involved in (re)producing and disseminating artistic works – an ideological apparatus, as Althusser might describe it – bearing the imprint of what Fredric Jameson termed the cultural logic of late capitalism.

Since the release of Netflix’s version of The Three-Body Problem, there has been a great deal of controversy among Chinese audiences. The mainstream media in China has positively analyzed the Netflix adaptation as an example of “cross-cultural communication,” saying that “The global hit of Netflix’s version of ‘Three-body’ fully shows that the Chinese story is being recognized by more markets” and that “the original story’s message of joining humanity across ethnic boundaries and the innovative Chinese talent to create such a narrative is what has attracted global attention”[1].

In contrast to this mainstream media perspective, the discussion on Douban (豆瓣), where you can find a variety of popular views on videos and publications in China, is that the Netflix version is a completely different work due to its Americanized, politically correct adaptation of the original. The site gives the Netflix version only a 6.9 rating, while the site’s rating for Three-Body, a drama series by China’s Tencent that aired in 2023, is 8.7, which is higher than the Netflix version. The Chinese drama series has been praised by Chinese audiences for their relative faithfulness to the source material. The domestic version is more of a techno-noir and emphasizes the apocalyptic tone of the original. On Jhihu (知乎), a site similar to Douban, most of the discussion centers on complaints that Netflix’s adaptation does not do justice to the original. 

Here, a paradox emerges. While these two seem to be different opinions, they are actually sitting on the same couch in that they are intransigently asserting the superiority of “Chineseness.” The mainstream media says that Chinese science fiction is so great that it has captured the world’s attention and is gaining traction in the global marketplace, while public opinion complains that The Three-Body Problem is so perfect that the American producers did not get it right and botched the adaptation. The two opposing positions do not actually disagree about the uniqueness of “Chineseness” at all. For them, China is unquestionably good, and its achievement must be justified. 

To understand this paradox, we need to look at a comment left by an anonymous user on Douban. The user speculated that the Netflix version of The Three-Body Problem was made from a strictly American perspective, resulting in a “character-centered plot with an imprint of American blood,” and that this blatant ideological purpose led the adapted version to keep Ye Wenjie, who symbolizes “China’s historical legacy,” and replace other heroes, who are supposed to save the humanity, with “Westerners”[2]. This analysis certainly goes a step further than simply complaining that the original meaning of the Chinese science fiction was not properly realized. 

However, while these criticisms hold some validity, it is important to recognize that the distortions cannot be solely attributed to the Netflix adaptation. Interestingly, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem had already been altered by the time it was translated into English. The Cultural Revolution, which appears briefly in Yen’s reminiscences, was placed at the front of the English version, invoking images of China familiar to readers outside of China. In an interview with the New York Times in 2019, Ken Liu, the translator of the Chinese version, said he placed the shocking mob trial scene at the front to emphasize that the trauma of the Cultural Revolution’s political violence and repression led to the interstellar clash[3]. The translator emphasized that the Cultural Revolution was set as the trigger point for all events in order to straighten out the original’s incomprehensibly jumbled timeline into a natural flow. According to the interview, when the original author, Cixin Liu, heard the translator’s suggestion, he readily agreed, saying, “That is how I wanted it originally.” 

Indeed, this statement seems to promise a happy ending for everyone, but if you step back and think about it for a moment, it reveals a disturbing truth. Imagine, for example, that someone translates James Joyce’s Ulysses and rearranges the chronological order because the original plot is complicated. You will quickly realize that it does not make sense. Of course, the “Three-Body” trilogy is not Ulysses, and Cixin Liu is not James Joyce, but as someone who has read the Korean version, which is a direct translation of the Chinese version, I find Ken Liu’s argument hard to believe. I reckon that in their quest to appeal to American audiences and meet commercial expectations, English translations often veil the intricate cultural nuances and literary intricacies inherent to Chinese science fiction behind an inscrutable curtain. 

This view is different from the complaints about Netflix’s version, which is currently bubbling up on Chinese social media. The original works of the “Three-Body” trilogy have quite different literary characteristics than the cyberpunk-style science fiction we are used to today. The original story is an unusual format that reads like a cross between Chinese wuxia (武俠) stories and nineteenth-century science fiction like H. G. Wells. In an interview with the British Library, the author revealed that he was influenced by classic science fiction, such as Wells and Jules Verne, rather than contemporary science fiction[4]. You can also see the influence of these wuxia stories in characters like “Wallfacer” and “Swordholder.” It is similar to how Japanese samurai movies influenced Star Wars. This narrative structure and characters are not that unfamiliar to Asian readers who are familiar with modern wuxia stories. 

This instance represents merely one example among many distorted adaptations. The recent boom in translations of Korean literature has been similarly controversial. Rather than striving for fidelity to the original works, the prevailing norm has become to drastically embellish and alter the source material to cater to the sensibilities and expectations of English-speaking audiences. Few examples illustrate the cultural industry’s filtration of local languages and values as precisely as the “translation” of local literature for the Anglophone market. Globalization is already based on these fundamental asymmetries of inequality, and its aftermath will continue to be retained for some time. While some voices are calling for the end of globalization, others want it to continue. Two Chinese voices on the Netflix version of The Three-Body Problem illustrate this point.

Ironically, for Chinese readers, science fiction is not merely a contemporary literary genre; it resonates more as a realm akin to modern classics. This resonance stems from its introduction to China during the late nineteenth century Qing Dynasty, contemporaneously with Europe, imbuing it with a historical and cultural significance beyond its temporal categorization. Influential Chinese intellectuals such as Lu Xun and Liang Qichao recognized its potential to propel societal progress. Among the first translated works was Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, published in Chinese in 1900 by Chen Shoupeng and Xue Shaohui. Lu Xun further popularized the genre by translating Verne’s works from Japanese, including From the Earth to the Moon in 1903 and Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1906. Additionally, an anonymous author, known as Huangjiang Diaosou(荒江钓叟) penned China’s earliest original science fiction novel, Colony of the Moon (月球殖民地), serialized in Illustrated Fiction from 1904 to 1905, marking a significant milestone in the nation’s indigenous science fiction.

Due to this historical context, science fiction holds a unique position in China, setting it apart from the fantasy genre. Science fiction is prioritized for its enlightening role in disseminating scientific knowledge among people. Examining the table of contents of the original edition of The Three-Body Problem through this lens reveals a deliberate organization aimed at fulfilling its didactic purpose. The scene in chapter 16 of the original corresponding to chapter 15 in the English translation clearly illustrates this concern. In this allegorical composition featuring conversations between the Pope, Aristotle, Galileo, and Copernicus (Wang Miao), a notable moment arises when Galileo describes Mozi, an ancient Chinese materialist philosopher, as “a mystic dressed as a scientist” and critiquing that “Mozi’s way of thinking was still Eastern”[5]. 

This scene contrasts with Evans’ dialogue with Ye Wenjie in the original chapter of the book, appropriately titled “Pan-Species Communism” (the English translation titled “Evans”). In that chapter, Evans asserts that pan-species communism finds its roots in Eastern philosophy, which is precisely why he traveled to China. In this conversation, the two characters are portrayed as fed up with human selfishness and shamelessness, and they agree to work together to bring in alien forces to exterminate humanity and build a new civilization. This setting is nothing new to Asian readers. Only the stage has changed to outer space, and the storyline depicts in a different way the aspirations of Asian intellectuals to modernize against the imperialism of Western powers in the nineteenth century. Unable to find revolutionary agents from within, Asian progressives of the time hoped that their political systems would change through the impact of outside forces. 

While cloaked in the rhetoric of science fiction, the narrative of The Three-Body Problem resonates with many aspects of modern China’s historical roots. In a sense, Cixin Lui’s work is science fiction, but it is also fiction about science. From this viewpoint, the overarching message of the trilogy becomes more apparent. It is evident that the narrative probes reimagining humanity’s essence beyond the given boundaries of knowledge set by modern science. Significantly, China is described as the pivotal force tasked with a crucial posthuman or further “superintelligence” undertaking within this narrative framework. This new China aims to cleanse itself of all past disgrace and humiliation and become a leader in geopolitical relations. Science is still necessary for this purpose, but it must be ‘new’ science, not the modern science that created the dominance of the West in the past.

The trilogy progressively unveils an anti-democratic ideological undercurrent as it unfolds in subsequent volumes. Evocative of the nineteenth-century social Darwinist ideas of Herbert Spencer, the narrative embraces a brutal ‘survival of the fittest’ ethos. Moreover, it draws heavily from the strategic philosophies outlined in Sun Tzu’s ancient Chinese treatise, The Art of War, interweaving these martial tactics into a space opera setting. However, the binding intellectual force that fuses these disparate elements is the trilogy’s engagement with the political theory of Carl Schmitt and his trenchant critique of liberal democracy. The influential roles of the ‘Wallfacer’ and ‘Swordholder’ archetypes exemplify Schmitt’s advocacy for sovereign decision-makers empowered to declare discretionary ‘states of exception.’

The combination of these unfamiliar elements was made possible by an atmosphere that considered China as an alternative to Western modernity. If Ye Wenjie is a figure that represents the failure of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Evans is a character that illustrates the failure of the Western leftist movement. Cixin Liu’s trilogy sought to paint a picture of a new humanity that overcame both failures and placed the new China at the center of that humanity’s birth. This logic driving the so-called rise (崛起) of “New China” may have made sense at the height of globalization, but it is no longer in Netflix’s interest to pursue global markets under conditions of decoupling with China. 

Some have attributed the issue to the New Cold War, yet I believe it is a straw man argument to criticize Netflix’s rendition of The Three-Body Problem in this manner. The real issue lies in the asymmetrical modernity, as elucidated by the original work’s internal logic, which has characterized China’s interactions with the West for over a century, dating back to the nineteenth century. My perspective gravitates towards a bleaker reality than this perspective suggests. The imagined downfall of humanity depicted in the original work encapsulated China’s struggle to carve out a new identity. The notion of the end of the world often occupies our thoughts more readily than the end of capitalism because the apocalyptic imagination binds us together as members of humanity; we identify with this collective subjectivity, whereas we cannot grasp capitalism in its entirety. 

Through the apocalyptic narrative of science fiction, China tries to imagine itself as part of humanity. Still, the reality is that it operates based on fragmented capitalist interests. In pragmatic terms, China’s societal fabric remains interwoven with the fragmented logic of capitalist interests. Economic pursuits and individualistic motivations often supersede unified conceptions of a shared human condition. Despite the speculative tenor of science fiction narratives, the reality of China’s socio-economic landscape reflects the complexities and contradictions inherent to capitalism, where myriad actors pursue disparate interests within an overarching global economic system. This dissonance between apocalyptic vision and capitalist reality presents an enduring tension. 

For these reasons, China’s aspiration to forge a distinct civilizational identity through apocalyptic narratives ultimately faltered. Netflix’s adaptation of The Three-Body Problem stands as an ironic testament to this failure, compounded by the fact that this modified version remains inaccessible to Chinese viewers. Consequently, China finds itself estranged from its own cultural production, excluded from the very discourse of universality it had sought to engage. The experiment of harnessing the forces of global capitalism to articulate Chinese values as an alternative modernity to Western hegemony appears to have reached an impasse. The contemporary Chinese experience demonstrates that the venture to transcend the two failures of the revolutionary movements has itself culminated in a further, compounded failure. However, this failure is not China’s alone to bear, but a burden shared collectively. Regrettably, the imaginative vision of a renewed humanity that the apocalyptic narrative sought to present is being eclipsed by a resurgence of regressive authoritarianism that invokes the spectral vestiges of bygone eras. It is this reality that is right in front of us that is being filtered out by the cultural industry.

You can order the latest Sublation Pamphlet from Alex, The Flesh of Democracy – here.

  1. “奈飞版《三体》引发全球关注跨文化改”
  3. “How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America”
  5. Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem, trans. Ken Liu (London: Head of Zeus, 2015), p. 194.