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3 Body Problem

(REVIEW) Netflix’s Three-Body Problem

The Universe will remain a mystery to you forever
In place of Truth, we give you miracles
We wrap your world in illusions
We make you see what we want you to see

[Mild Spoilers Warning]

Netflix recently released their latest original science fiction series, Three-Body Problem, into their global streaming platform. The eight-part series is based on the first of three books by award-winning novelist Liu Cixin (which I am sorry to say I haven’t read yet) and depicts in a relatively rigorous scientific manner —what is known in literature as ‘hard’ Sci-Fi— a first-contact scenario with a more advanced extraterrestrial civilization, which will forever alter the course of our own species. Are these aliens —called the San-ti by the humans who await their arrival— conquerors coming to wipe us out and reclaim our planet for themselves, or are they saviors who will deliver us to a new world free from our own past mistakes? This is the crucible facing the characters, who will be forced to choose a side.

Hard Sci-Fi means you don’t get to see humanoid aliens engaging in laser dogfights or warping from planet to planet as if they were just traveling to another continent, as Hollywood blockbusters have spoiled us with. As such, 3BP will not be everyone’s cup of tea since it might seem too slow or dry for Trekkies —and too ‘unlikely’ for regular folks.

But just because the scenario proposed by 3BP hasn’t happened yet does not mean it is unlikely. In fact, let me rephrase it: The scenario has indeed happened several times in our history, in the form of contact between cultures with different technological developments (e.g. the Aztec empire and the Spaniard conquistadors) often with disastrous results for the less-advanced adversary.

The possibility that this type of conflict could happen again on a global scale —with all of us ending like the Aztecs— is at the core of the scientific discipline currently known as ‘Active SETI’, which has failed to encourage decision makers to seriously consider the implications of actually getting a signal from another intelligent life form outside of Earth —do we reply back? And if so, who gets to speak for all of Humanity? 3BP deals with this issue, and it is also a good reminder of how a hypothetical extraterrestrial presence could seriously threaten us not with superior weapons or magic-like technology beyond our comprehension —as muskets or horse transport were to the Aztecs— but by the very incontrovertible confirmation of its existence; what UFO buffs love to call ‘Ontological Shock’ nowadays.

You see, it wouldn’t matter if an alien fleet bloated the skies of Earth tomorrow or 400 years from now; just knowing for certain that they are out there, that they are coming, and that they wanted us to know they regarded us as bugs, would be enough to undermine us from within.

From that perspective, 3BP also reminds us that the quest for alien intelligence will always be entangled with religious connotations. Finding a solution to the age-old question “are we alone?” (regardless of the answer) will inevitably revise our spiritual beliefs. Even more so, as the real history of Ufology suggests, when people update or replace the pantheon of institutionalized religions with space-faring godlings, which only seem more real to our materialistic sensibilities due to our increasing dependence in modern technology. Needless to say, these new UFO-related religions can be as fanatical (and dangerous) as the followers of the San-ti in 3BP.

Speaking of Ufology, as an old student it is impossible not to draw certain parallels between this fictional series, and the conclusions reached by some of the most illustrious thinkers in the field. In 3BP the San-ti use powerful illusions —aimed at either individuals or large populations— as weapons of psychological deterrent and sociological manipulation. This is in total agreement with the ‘Control System’ theory proposed by Jacques Vallée in his book The Invisible College.

According to Vallée, the phenomenon interacts with us with an inherent level of absurdity, and speculates that this could have the dual purpose of both reinforcing certain ‘lessons’ in our society on a (very) long term basis, while at the same time ensuring the status quo will be inclined to dismiss the cultural effects produced by the phenomenon. While Vallée remains largely neutral about the reasons why the UFO phenomenon is enforcing these “illusions” upon us, 3BP takes a far more pessimistic take which would have probably appealed to the late Spanish writer Salvador Freixedo, former Catholic priest and author of the book Defendámonos de los Dioses (Let Us Defend Against the Gods).

There are other interesting correlations between 3BP and the real UFO phenomenon, like for example mysterious deaths of researcher and scientists which have been covered by author Nick Redfern in his 2014 Close Encounters of the Fatal Kind.

There is also the fascinating mythology of Friendship Island —which to this day remains more popular in Latin America, where it originated. Friendship island is a legendary island hidden within the Chilean archipelago close to Antarctica, where a secret community of individuals is said to be in contact with the “Angels of the Lord” (this will surely ring a bell to those who have already watched 3BP).

In the series, Mike Evans is a mysterious wealthy industrialist and environmentalist who plays a key role in establishing contact with the San-ti; whereas the Friendship Island mythos also has its own mysterious rich man in the form of Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of the fashion brand Esprit who later became an extreme conservationist —the ones who believe the best way to protect nature from the disruptions of mankind is by large portions of land complete off-limits from human trespassing. This is exactly what Tompkins attempted to do in the same zone of Chile where the Friendship Island was said to be located, triggering all sorts of interesting conspiracy theories which were also mixed with the infamous ‘Dignidad colony’ of Nazi expats —but we should probably leave those for some other time…

There’s little else to cover about 3 Body Problem, other than its suggestion that Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality have the risk of becoming ‘weaponized’ if developed for the wrong reasons —the ultimate ‘alienation’ tool. Since we all seem to be going in that direction with little public outcry from politicians and the general public, this is once again a good opportunity to remind our readers to grab a copy of Diana Pasulka’s Encounters, where they will find many clues pointing to how several influential technologists are convinced A.I. is like an ‘alien life form’ destined to irrupt into our plane of existence —one wonders how many of them have read Liu Cixin’s novels, or have spoken with him directly…

Netflix has become infamous for canceling promising projects after just one season. Given the mixed reviews received by 3BP, its future remains uncertain. It would be a shame if it got cancelled, since it’s a decent series with a superb cast —Benedict Wong was my favorite— and I for one hope we get to have two more seasons, so viewers can find out what happens when humanity finally meets the San-ti (if not, I guess we’ll have to settle with the Chinese adaptation which is currently streaming on Prime)

The series makes several references to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1967. “In Nature, nothing exists alone,” wrote Carson; this idea is symbolized in the series through Pushkin, a goldfish kept as a pet by one of the characters.

If we take that idea to the cosmic level —as Cixin seems to have done with 3BP— then that would mean our present state of planetary isolation from other intelligent beings out there in the universe, while seemingly the safest condition for our species —like a single goldfish kept all alone on a bowl— is far from a being natural one. Sooner or later, the little fish is going to get out of the bowl and face bigger fishes in the big black ocean.

  1. Thanks for the Review.

    I just opened a Story Folder to analyze and break out the whole series; books and TV series.

    – It will be worth the effort. I can write against the series and have many novels as a result.

    I read the first book when it came out years ago and dismissed it as classic Space Cadet babble. At first, I was not interested in the Netflix series because of that. I watched the trailer, since I had Netflix, decided to try the first episode. Glad I did.

    – They have made coherent what was incoherent Space Cadet babble.

    The story is still Fantasy, not SF. There are so many things that violate physical laws that I could not understand the accolades for the books.

    I’ve watched the last two episodes multiple times, and will watch the TV series many more times. I love the situation Saul finds himself in the last episode, the “Wallfacer”. HA! I just keep laughing and reacting at the same points. Astonishing.

    Be sure to watch the extras on Netflix, it helps explain how they translated the books into the series.

    I found the ebook bundle of the trilogy on Amazon.

    The Three-Body Problem Series: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End

    It is cheaper than buying them separately.

    BTW, as an example of Space Cadet babble that I still love to watch many times a year, is The Martian.

    The Martian | Official Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX

    Ask a series of simple questions:

    – How did the astronauts land on Mars.

    – How did the Mars vehicles, the Base, and all of the other equipment land on Mars.

    I saw those gaping plot holes in the Story from the start, but I still love to watch it. “So yeah, I blew myself up.” HA!

    But I digress.

  2. The proposed propulsion system used by the humans is the Medusa Sail which Johndale Solem explored in several papers a couple of decades ago. The runway approach for pulse drives was proposed by Dan Whitmire & Al Jackson in the 1970’s, so is a natural extension to the Medusa Sail. On the interstellar news site “Centauri Dreams” Martyn Fogg discussed the exact concept in 2012. Liu didn’t specify a Medusa Sail per se, so I wonder if it’s an unacknowledged bit of inspiration from the show-writers?

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