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The Three-Body Problem: The 'unfilmable' Chinese sci-fi novel set to be Netflix's new hit 3 Body Problem

9:46 28/3/2024

By James Balmont, BBC features correspondent

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 17: Saamer Usmani, Marlo Kelly, John Bradley, Zine Tseng, Liam Cunningham, Jess Hong, Benedict Wong, Eve Ridley, Sea Shimooka, Rosalind Chao, Alex Sharp and Jonathan Pryce attend the Los Angeles debut of Netflix's "3 Body Problem" at NYA WEST on March 17, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.   Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

The cast of Netflix's 3 Body Problem at the Los Angeles debut on 17 March. Photo: AFP / Getty Images / Matt Winkelmeyer

Warning: This article contains some basic plot spoilers

One day in Beijing, in 1967, astrophysics student Ye Wenjie witnesses her father being beaten to death by paramilitary forces. Later, she joins a military program in Mongolia as part of an agreement to avoid her own punishment, on the condition that she can never leave the base. At this chilly outpost, beneath a giant parabolic antenna, she loses all faith in mankind. She commits her life to her research, making a scientific breakthrough that leads to the broadcasting of a high-powered radio signal into deep space. This action will have grave consequences, and it all stems from that fateful day in Beijing.

This is merely an overview of the universe-spanning plot of The Three-Body Problem - a science fiction epic that also takes in secret science programs; an alien species in a solar system beyond the stars; and a strange video game depicting the rise and fall of great civilisations over thousands of years. Beijing-born Liu Cixin's bestselling novel, the first in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, was once thought unadaptable for its brain-rattling time jumps, philosophical dilemmas and dense explorations of scientific theory (a Chinese film adaptation was shelved in 2017). But it now reaches global screens via a Netflix series - the belated comeback project of Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss. Early reviews are split over whether they've quite pulled off the gambit.

What's more evident, though, is the incredible success of the original novel - first serialised in Science Fiction World magazine in China in 2006, and translated for Western readers by Ken Liu in 2014. Its champions include Barack Obama and Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin; and after winning the prestigious Hugo Award for best novel in 2015 (placing Liu in the ranks of Dune writer Frank Herbert and the Foundation series' author Isaac Asimov), the book and its two sequels have sold nearly 9 million copies worldwide. Today, Liu is lauded as the man who put Chinese science fiction on the map - an incredible feat given the historic suppression of the genre in his native country.

"[Over] 40 days, in Beijing alone, more than 1700 victims of struggle sessions were beaten to death," reads an early passage in the English-language translation of The Three-Body Problem. "Many others picked an easier path to avoid the madness." The novel is set in 1967; over the course of the next decade up to 2 million perished in China's Cultural Revolution, as the radical, student-led "Red Guards" moved to violently reinforce Mao Zedong's communist policies. Many victims killed themselves as a means to "end the pain of persecution" - a truth alluded to via the unexplained suicides in the scientific community in The Three-Body Problem's present-day plot-line. But what's even more compelling than how this true history shaped events in Liu's work, is how Mao's regime would also shape the course of science fiction in the real world.

Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 5th China (Chengdu) International Science Fiction Conference in Chengdu city, southwest China's Sichuan province, 22 November 2019. (Photo by / Imaginechina / Imaginechina via AFP)

Liu Cixin's books have sold more than 9 million copies worldwide. Photo: AFP / Imaginechina /

Sci-fi's dormant period

Liu was born in 1963, just three years before the Cultural Revolution began - a time in which scientists, writers and other intellectuals were denounced as counter-revolutionary, and sent to labour camps for "thought remoulding", says Dr Hua Li, professor of Chinese at Montana State University and author of books such as Chinese Science Fiction during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw. Party propaganda aside, little literature was published during this time - and for science fiction writers to navigate the tumultuous political situation was especially difficult. "A lot of common motifs were taboos," Hua says. "For example, in Mao's era, Marxist-Leninist doctrine made no provision for the possible existence of space aliens in the universe."

With technological innovation and scientific ambition declared the products of corrupt Western capitalism, "Chinese science fiction remained dormant from the early 1960s to 1976," says Hua. But, as revealed in The Three-Body Problem's postscript, 6-year-old Liu Cixin would be struck, nonetheless, with "indescribable curiosity and yearning" after witnessing China's first artificial satellite sail across the sky in April 1970. Upon discovering a box of books - including Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth - under his father's bed a few years later, he found himself harbouring a determination that, like his character Ye Wenjie's, would eventually have far-reaching consequences. "My persistence stems from the words of my father", Liu told Guangming Daily in 2019, "Who had explained that this … creation based on science could only be read in private."

Chairman Mao died in 1976, and just as "the horror experienced during the Cultural Revolution gradually subsided" for Ye Wenjie in The Three-Body Problem, so too did an era of reform and openness towards intellectualism and the West allow science fiction to briefly flourish following Deng Xiaoping's rise to power from 1977. As Deng declared that year: "science and technology is the number one productive force", Scientific Art and Literature magazine began to publish translated and original science fiction in 1979, and young Liu, too, began to put pen to paper for the first time. But just as the re-emergence of "nightmarish memories" would convince Ye that "the real pain had just begun" in his novel, so too would the Communist Party hamper the sci-fi resurgence once again.

Wary of a greater diffusion of Western ideas into China, Deng's opponents began to stand against his liberal policies, and in 1983 the Party launched a campaign against "spiritual pollution", which "aimed to root out Western-inspired 'bourgeois liberalist' ideas," says Hua. The propaganda bureau "singled out specific genres to attack and suppress: 'science fiction works that contain ghost stories, violence, sex, anti-scientific assumptions and veiled criticism of socialism' were among those castigated as 'spiritual pollution'." Key authors like Ye Yonglie, who had written stories about space travel as China launched its first satellites into orbit, were condemned, and the magazine Scientific Art and Literature was forced to publish non-fiction works, changing its name to the more inconspicuous Strange Tales in the process. Within a few months, Deng shut down the campaign, but "many science fiction writers", says Hua, "were disappointed and emotionally hurt, and left the field".

Even as science fiction re-emerged, political sensitivities hampered its progress. Liu Cixin's first full novel, 1989's China 2185 (a cyberpunk fantasy concerning the resurrection of Mao in virtual reality) provides a fascinating example of a science fiction narrative "prevented from appearing in print due to sensitive socio-political topics, [but later] published online", says Hua (many such works, she adds, would then be deleted soon afterwards). The novel was completed just two months before troops were deployed to violently suppress protests in Tiananmen Square (the site of the book's opening chapter) - an event that likewise damaged plans by Science Fiction World (the latest incarnation of Scientific Art and Literature) to host a major writers' conference in Chengdu in 1991. News of the incident had shocked potential international guests, resulting in only a dozen foreign authors attending what might otherwise have been a more significant watershed event.

Science fiction in China today

Present-day China is a different place to that in which Liu was raised. Following rapid economic development in the '90s, the country is now a modernised and prosperous nation, but also one known for its use of facial-recognition technology as a tool of state surveillance; for a social credit system that rates citizens on their trustworthiness; and for a space program that now boasts the second-highest number of artificial satellites in the world (more than 600 are currently orbiting the Earth). "China's dramatic transformations is futuristic in itself," says science fiction writer Han Song in his 2013 journal article "Chinese Science Fiction: A Response to Modernisation", in which he describes "science fiction" as a term to describe China's economic miracle. "The realities … are the stuff of fiction."

Indeed, alongside these technological developments, science fiction has flourished in China. Western texts from Hugo Award winners Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke arrived on bookshelves in the '90s, as films like Jurassic Park and The Matrix appeared in cinemas; and by the turn of the century, Science Fiction World had reached a circulation of 400,000, the largest of any publication of its kind. In 2019, another Liu screen adaptation - The Wandering Earth - marked a watershed for Chinese sci-fi films after grossing a staggering $673 million at the Chinese box office. So what has changed?

"Governmental censorship is relatively strict in socio-political issues," explains Hua, "[but] relatively relaxed in techno-scientific subjects". As such, most writers will self-censor their work, though overtly sensitive topics such as alternative history are still avoided altogether. As recently as 2013, time-travel narratives were banned in TV dramas due to their perceived lack of respect towards Chinese history. Nonetheless, socio-political critique is not off the table for Chinese writers: "criticism of the Cultural Revolution is not some forbidden topic in China", translator Ken Liu said in a 2015 Reddit AMA.

But even with the spectacle of Liu being declared the first Asian winner of the Hugo Award's top prize in 2015 - by an astronaut floating 3.5 million km away from Earth on the International Space Station - his book can't help but betray the sensitive nature of its conception. After all, the chapters set during the Cultural Revolution (which open the English-language version of The Three-Body Problem) were moved to the midway point in the original Chinese publication for fears that it would come across as too politically charged for government censors (this was a particularly sensitive subject around the time of the 30th anniversary of the Revolution's end). Eight years on, the first-ever Worldcon to take place in China (home of the Hugo Award) was marred by controversy after several nominees at the 2023 event were inexplicably declared ineligible from awards, raising concerns that they had been targeted by the Chinese Communist Party for political reasons.

Benioff and Weiss, whose new Netflix series opens in the same fashion as the English-language version of the book, will not have to worry about censorship. (A completely different television adaptation of The Three-Body Problem, made for Chinese audiences, already began airing there in January 2024). Instead, the Western showrunners, whose story expands upon and diverges from the original Liu novels, will face their own critical judgement from audiences in the weeks ahead.

This story was originally published by the BBC.

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