Are We Bugs? The Geopolitics of Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’

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Are We Bugs? The Geopolitics of Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’

The geopolitics of first contact is an interesting question. Does it really matter who speaks for humanity first? 

Are We Bugs? The Geopolitics of Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem’
Credit: Photo by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash

When and if humanity makes first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, does it matter which country makes the initial overtures? If we contact a hostile alien civilization, how do we promote (cosmic) deterrence? Does humanity organize innovation to compete, or seek to escape and flee? These are the central international political questions, among many others, that Netflix’s new hit series “3 Body Problem” tackles. 

The project has a storied history evolving from Liu Cixin’s trilogy, “Remembrance of Earth’s Past.” First serialized in China in 2008, the books were a massive statement of purpose from the Chinese science fiction community, with exports surpassing all past literary exports by China to the West. In 2014, the series was translated into English, winning the prestigious Hugo Award in 2015.

Adapted for Netflix by “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, along with Alexander Woo, the series makes an impressive statement and immerses viewers in a new series of hard science fiction, rare in popular culture. The series, despite accusations of whitewashing, is distinctly Chinese in spirit and ethos, posing questions for those interested in the geopolitics of popular culture. We have to ask: can China be a force for soft power in this world? 

The setup is simple, an advanced alien civilization turns out to be close to Earth, remarkably close (about four light years). They live in a tri-solar system (three suns), which introduces chaos and will eventually destroy the Trisolaran civilization for good. Thus, they will come for us now that they know we are here, and soon. 

Making Contact

The geopolitics of first contact is an interesting question. Does it really matter who speaks for humanity first? In the books, there is concern that the revisionist communists (Soviets) or the capitalists (Americans) might make first contact, biasing the aliens against humanity. But the real story is far deeper and more controversial. 

In the initial Chinese version of the book series, the author buried the roots of the scientist who makes contact deeper in the novel, hiding the facts from the censors. The Netflix adaptation starts by displaying Communist China’s great evil from the top. The core character, Ye Wenjie played by Rosalind Chao (old) and Zine Tseng (young), a victim of the Cultural Revolution, figures out how to make contact and she is not at all pleased with humanity after witnessing her father die in a struggle session and her mother made to betray him. 

Anger and hatred for humanity frame much of the first novel and the later series. Besides the question of how the Earth will defend itself, we must deal with the challenge of traitors in our midst. Those who give up on humanity for assorted reasons from environmental degradation or domestic politics welcome the aliens. They hope and pray for salvation with a religious fervor. 

Yet, the Trisolaran civilization quickly finds out that humanity is corrupt, filled with liars. The struggle between the heroes of humanity and the traitors frames much of the first season. The coming seasons will explore how humanity might establish deterrence, what happens when humanity faces advanced technology, and the true nature of the Universe.  

Constructing Cosmic Deterrence 

A common trope in science fiction is that humanity will unite in peace when an external threat is posed to humanity. Some question this notion, which is why the framing of the Cultural Revolution is so groundbreaking. We can have a positive view of humanity overall;  yet as a civilization we have failed many times. 

If humanity knows an alien civilization is coming for us, do we fight or flee? Escapism is a key theme in the books and, likely in later TV seasons. Fighting and organizing for survival is the first instinct, but do the moral choices humanity makes to face this threat doom us in the end? This issue challenges the heroes of humanity: How far must we go to survive?

The Trisolarans view humans as bugs, and are indignant at humanity’s warlike nature. Is there anything to save? At what cost? While the Trisolarans fear our rapid jumps in technology, they also want to make humanity fear the Universe since human hubris poses a threat to any civilization Earth might contact. Who is really the hunted and who will be the hunters in the dark forest? 

To gain the upper hand, humanity must establish deterrence and prevent an alien attack. As an inferior civilization, is deterrence even possible? Modern geopolitics is largely founded on deterrence, nuclear deterrence specifically, yet the reality is that deterrence has never really been tested. Perceptions matter, might humanity have an advantage in our capacity to lie and deceive? These questions guide much of the “3 Body Problem” series. 

Chinese Soft Power and Influence 

Soft power, the influence of culture, is a core concept in international relations but remains more of an idea than an empirical reality. The United States is certainly the expert in soft power through Disney, Coca-Cola, and Taylor Swift. And the Koreans have done a remarkable job of gaining soft power influence, too. But, arguably, the Chinese have largely failed. Why? 

“3 Body Problem” may explain why Chinese soft power has limited reach. Despite the failures of American civilization, China has much of its own history to contend with from the Cultural Revolution to its treatment of the Uyghur people. That reality makes even Chinese viewers uncomfortable, wishing for the complete removal of China from the series. 

The question of who makes contact may matter a great deal in presenting humanity to extraterrestrial civilizations. A core theme of the series is that our choices affect our surroundings, from environmental degradation to how alien civilizations might perceive humanity. China’s past choices, just like any country, will impact how the universe and the world perceive Chinese culture. 

While many accuse the Netflix series of whitewashing the books, the reality is that this is a Western production for a global audience. In many ways, the choices made by the Netflix series are an improvement with the “Oxford 5”, the core heroes of humanity, playing a stable role through the series, something missing in the books which tend to jump from character to character with little continuity. 

While we lose the core hero Luo Ji from the books, we gain Sual Durand, played by a Black British actor. We gain Jess Hong who plays Jin Cheng, later becoming a core element of the entire series through multiple characters but now streamlined from beginning to end. We gain Auggie Salazar, a Latino scientist played by Eiza Gonzalez. This production rightly introduces diversity for a global audience, a positive outcome in my view. “3 Body Problem” is still a distinctly Chinese influence project, but the levers of capitalism are always working behind the scenes. 

The Universe Winks…

Should we answer back when the Universe eventually speaks to us? The book series is clear: do not answer. We might not like what we hear back. 

This challenge will perplex humanity for much of our existence. Many view the prospect of first contact as exciting, but it also may doom humanity, and it would be our fault. This pessimistic vision of science fiction is welcome and a particular contribution of Chinese science fiction.

Humanity is already confronting this challenge. We can now reproduce the vocalizations of sperm whales. Eventually, with advanced artificial intelligence we will be able to understand the language of sperm whales. What else will we come to understand?

We might be excited to speak to another mammalian civilization, but we also might not like what we hear back. Are we destroying their environment? Are our ships and pipelines wiping out their civilization? Instead of a whale fin salute of hello, we might instead get a middle flipper due to all the destruction humanity is causing. Is this how the Universe might eventually react to humanity?

I look forward to the Netflix series continuing. I am excited to compare the Netflix version to the longer Chinese-produced version. But mostly, I am excited for humanity to confront a pessimistic view of first contact and survival. After COVID and the many errors of the last few centuries, it is not at all clear that we have anything to offer the Universe. Are we bugs, insignificant, or is humanity a force for good? These questions should trouble us all.