In Review: 3-Body Problem (Netflix)

Review by Tim Robins

Across continents and decades, five brilliant friends make earth-shattering discoveries as the laws of science unravel and an existential threat emerges…


3 Body Problem - Netflix (2024)

Netflix’s eight episode 3-Body Problem is an adaptation of the first book in writer Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. A gripping thriller, the series combines the trappings of a police procedural with mind-boggling science-fiction spanning time and space.

Show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, of Game of Thrones fame (or infamy), expertly navigate between the story’s hard SF premise and human drama. The story is built around a series of mysteries and revelations, conceptual breakthroughs that result in the Earth itself looking very alone and vulnerable in the face of an uncaring universe.

Why are scientists around the world giving up their research or, worse, committing suicide? How is a serial killer able to vanish from CCTV recordings? What is the secret of the virtual reality headsets found in victims’ homes?  Enter the unsuspecting Benedict Wong (Wong in the MCU Doctor Strange movies) as Da Shi, a chain-smoking, hardboiled and wonderfully sweary Mancunian detective.

3 Body Problem - Netflix (2024)

After astrophysicist Vera Ye jumps to her death, Shi’s investigations focus on her students at Oxford, including Augustina “Auggie” Salazar (Eiza Gonzalez). Auggie is the successful founder of a nanotechnology company who begins hallucinating a countdown. But to what? And what is the role of a cult that is preparing to welcome an alien fleet scheduled to arrive in 400 years time?

To an extent, 3-Body Problem arises from a debate in cosmology: the Drake Equation (which suggest there could be 500 civilisations in our galaxy alone), the Fermi Paradox (which asks why there is no sign of these civilisations) and The Dark Forest hypothesis (which suggests that civilisations are probably, sensibly, hiding from each other, for fear of conquest by another species). 

3 Body Problem - Netflix (2024)

Thus, 3-Body Problem is all a bit Doctor Who meets Taggart. After all, it was Doctor Who’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart who, back in 1970, pointed out that Earth had drawn attention to itself – cue invading hordes of Autons and Axons and a few ambassadors of death thrown in for good measure. And, like Doctor Who, the series’ effects sometimes struggle to realise what is written in the script. I hear what characters are saying but, at times, I am still not sure what I am seeing – the aliens are doing what with a pair of quantum entangled photons? 

A plethora of British actors contribute to the series feeling like an old-school TV drama. The cast includes Jonathan Pryce, who provides an air of quiet, authoritarian madness to his role as cult leader Mike Evans, preparing to greet the Si-Tan, his extraterrestrial ‘Lord’ in the manner of The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman. 

Ade Edmondson plays the frustrated head of Auggie’s nano-technology laboratory and there are even appearances from Reece Shearsmith as Alun Turing and the irrepressible Mark Gatiss as Issac Newton, both bit players in a virtual reality game world. I always enjoy Gatiss’s performances, although he looks even less convincing as Sir Issac than Nathaniel Curtis did in the recent Doctor Who special, “Wild Blue Yonder”.

3 Body Problem - Netflix (2024)

There are many heartfelt performances, particularly by Rosalind Chao, who brings a measured stoicism to her role as the adult Ye Wenjie. The weight of the terrible events she has witnessed in her life hangs heavy on her head. Ye is a champion of the Earth, betrayer of humanity and betrayed by her faith in the alien San-ti.

Sometimes the cast doesn’t work so well. John Bradley’s performance as drop-out/entrepreneur Jack Ronney (of Jack’s Snacks fame) lightens the mood, but I couldn’t get a handle on his character. Was he intended as comic relief? Are we supposed to find him crass, but sympathetic?

3 Body Problem - Netflix (2024)

The early episodes are a little ham-fisted when evoking ‘Science’ and the figure of scientists. I laughed when one of the characters exclaimed, “Science is broken!”. I’m not sure scientists would be driven to despair by two months of failed experiments. After all, physics still works – when Vera jumps off a ledge, she still falls.

I think, for me, the references to ‘science’ were too reminiscent of Boris Johnson’s Covid briefings. His utter waffle, coupled with a staccato delivery, fell short of completing a coherent sentence and his “green-remembered hills’ metaphors failed to reach the level of actual facts. At least this makes the ‘3-Body Problem’ very much a drama for our time. 

3 Body Problem - Netflix (2024)

The confident scripts take the hard-boiled SF elements in their stride, cleverly managing to juxtapose and explore different ways of understanding the world by including jokes and fairy tales. At one point, Evans reads the aliens the story of Little Red Riding Hood and they respond like scientists; they want to see the actual forest, so they can ask Red Riding Hood why she is talking to a Wolf all too obviously disguised as her kindly grandmother. Evans concedes that the story is a lie. But that’s his and the aliens’ mistake, because the story is also a metaphor for cosmology’s ‘dark forest’. The question is, who are the wolves in disguise, the aliens or us?

There are a number of nods to influential works of science. We see a copy of Fred Hoyle’s book Evolution from Space lying in a box. Sir Fred argued the case for ‘panspermia’ – the theory that life exists across the universe and may have migrated to Earth. He also coined the term ‘Big Bang.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, plays a central role in the story. First published in 1962, her book details the deleterious impact of pesticides on insects and the wider environment. Carson’s book has enjoyed a sales boost after the debut of 3-Body Problem. The author, however, didn’t write “Everything is connected”, as the show suggests, but instead wrote of entomology, “It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the Earth”.

Young Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) is given Carlson’s book while working in a forced labour camp during China’s ‘Cultural revolution’. Reading the book and looking at the destruction of nature around her, cements Wenjie’s belief that Earth would fare better in the hands of the San-ti. The book also provides a central metaphor for the series. “You are bugs!” scream the aliens, having finally mastered the use of metaphor. But even bugs have a way of surviving, at least until the second season.

Tim Robins

3-Body Problem is airing on Netflix

Liu Cixin, born in June 1963, is a representative of the new generation of Chinese science fiction authors and recognised as a leading voice in Chinese science fiction. Several of his novels have been adapted into graphic novels, published in English by Ad Astra (AmazonUK Affiliate Link). He was awarded the China Galaxy Science Fiction Award for eight consecutive years, from 1999 to 2006 and again in 2010. His representative work The Three-body Problem is the best story of 2015 Hugo Awards, the third of 2015 Campbell Award finalists, and nominee of 2015 Nebulas Award.

His works have received wide acclaim on account of their powerful atmosphere and brilliant imagination. Liu Cixin’s stories successfully combine the exceedingly ephemeral with hard reality, all the while focussing on revealing the essence and aesthetics of science. He has endeavoured to create a distinctly Chinese style of science fiction. Liu Cixin is a member of the China Writers’ Association and the Shanxi Writers’ Association.


Also available as a three-volume set (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem
Available here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

1967: Ye Wenjie witnesses Red Guards beat her father to death during China’s Cultural Revolution. This singular event will shape not only the rest of her life but also the future of mankind.

Four decades later, Beijing police ask nanotech engineer Wang Miao to infiltrate a secretive cabal of scientists after a spate of inexplicable suicides. Wang’s investigation will lead him to a mysterious online game and immerse him in a virtual world ruled by the intractable and unpredictable interaction of its three suns.

This is the Three-Body Problem and it is the key to everything: the key to the scientists’ deaths, the key to a conspiracy that spans light-years and the key to the extinction-level threat humanity now faces.

The Dark Forest
Available here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

Imagine the universe as a forest, patrolled by numberless and nameless predators. In this forest, stealth is survival – any civilisation that reveals its location is prey.

Earth has. Now the predators are coming.

Crossing light years, the Trisolarians will reach Earth in four centuries’ time. But the sophons, their extra-dimensional agents and saboteurs, are already here. Only the individual human mind remains immune to their influence.

This is the motivation for the Wallfacer Project, a last-ditch defence that grants four individuals almost absolute power to design secret strategies, hidden through deceit and misdirection from human and alien alike. Three of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but the fourth is a total unknown.

Luo Ji, an unambitious Chinese astronomer, is baffled by his new status. All he knows is that he’s the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris wants dead…

Death’s End
Available here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay.

Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge and, with human science advancing and the Trisolarans adopting Earth culture, it seems that the two civilizations can co-exist peacefully as equals without the terrible threat of mutually assured annihilation. But peace has made humanity complacent.

Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the 21st century, awakens from hibernation in this new age. She brings knowledge of a long-forgotten program dating from the start of the Trisolar Crisis, and her presence may upset the delicate balance between two worlds. Will humanity reach for the stars or die in its cradle?

Also available as a three-volume set (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

THREE-BODY (Chinese Version)

The series Three-Body – a 30-episode Chinese adaptation from Tencent, that runs much closer to the source material – was released in 2023 and is available to watch on Prime Video in the UK.

Wang Miao is one of China’s leading nanomaterials experts. Shi Qiang is a police detective who specialises in counterterrorism. Shi Qiang has learned of strange goings-on that began taking place in the scientific community many years ago, leading to the apparent suicide of a number of leading researchers – and is determined to get to the bottom of this case. Shi Qiang enlists Wang Miao to help investigate…

Categories: Books, Features, Other Worlds, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television

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