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Aliens attack science in '3 Body Problem,' a new adaptation of a Chinese sci-fi novel

The new Netflix series brings to life a sprawling, successful Chinese novel outlining a new kind of alien invasion. Above, Zine Tseng in <em>3 Body Problem.</em>
Maria Heras
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Netflix
The new Netflix series brings to life a sprawling, successful Chinese novel outlining a new kind of alien invasion. Above, Zine Tseng in 3 Body Problem.

My favorite kind of science fiction involves stories rooted in real science — much as I love a good lightsaber or phaser fight, there is something special about seeing characters wrestle with concepts closer to our current understanding of how the universe works.

That's why I enjoy so much of what happens in Netflix's 3 Body Problem, the TV series which brings to life a sprawling, successful Chinese novel rooted in science, outlining a new kind of alien invasion.

3 Body Problem actually starts with two problems. First, we meet investigators tackling a string of unexplained suicides by scientists, including one who had a bizarre countdown written on the walls of his home in blood with his eyes gouged out. (Fortunately, viewers only see the horrific aftermath.) Benedict Wong plays one of those investigators, continually lightening the show's ominous vibe with his spot-on portrayal of a world-weary gumshoe tracking the world's biggest mystery with a healthy dose of gallows humor.

Benedict Wong plays Da Shi in <em>3 Body Problem.</em>
Ed Miller / Netflix
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Netflix
Benedict Wong plays Da Shi in 3 Body Problem.

"One of the betting sites had him picked as a favorite for the next Nobel Prize in physics," Wong's assistant tells him of the scientist who died.

"You can bet on that?" Wong's character replies, looking over the gruesome scene.

Tracking why science is broken

The other problem which surfaces immediately is that science seems to have stopped working. Researchers are reporting results from experiments in supercolliders that make no sense, putting the lie to all our accepted theories of physics. Saul Durand — played by Jovan Adepo, Durand is one among a group of brilliant, young scientist friends at the center of the story — notes simply, "science is broken."

Jovan Adepo and Jin Cheng in <em>3 Body Problem.</em>
Ed Miller / Netflix
/
Netflix
Jovan Adepo and Jin Cheng in 3 Body Problem.

This all adds up to a unique attack on humanity's scientific progress. But who – or what – is behind these bizarre occurrences, involving events which don't seem possible in the modern world?

It takes a while for the series' narrative to really gain momentum – my advice is to hang on through the first three episodes (yes, I also hate streaming shows which ask this of beleaguered viewers; but in this case, it's worth it).

Netflix's show takes its time unveiling the full scope of the story and answering these questions, which leads to the third problem here. It takes a while for the series' narrative to really gain momentum – my advice is to hang on through the first three episodes (yes, I also hate streaming shows which ask this of beleaguered viewers; but in this case, it's worth it).

The pacing may not be a surprise, given that two of the series' three creators are David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, former showrunners of HBO's Game of Thrones, which had its own problems with narrative flow at times (the third creator is former True Blood writer/executive producer Alexander Woo). Once the show does find its groove, the series builds into an epic science fiction tale with eye-popping special effects – the tragic destruction of a huge ship packed with people is one that stuck with me long after viewing — and a timeline stretching from China's 1960s-era cultural revolution to the present day.

Bringing a Chinese sci fi-literary triumph to TV

Netflix's 3 Body Problem is based on a 2008 novel from Chinese engineer and science fiction writer Liu Cixin; the original novel became a book seriestouted by big nameslike Barack Obama. It managed the neat trick of popularizing Chinese science fiction internationally while delivering compelling observations on the nature of humanity's societal and technological progress, some of which actually find their way into the TV show.

It makes sense that a story like this — which crosses between Western and Chinese culture to tell the story of a planet under threat – would be cracked by Netflix. The streaming service has educated a generation of American customers to appreciate smart, entertaining TV from South Korea, Latin America, Europe and elsewhere across the globe.

So kicking off 3 Body Problem with a scene showing a young Chinese scientist watching an angry mob murder her father – who is also a scientist – during the purges of China's cultural revolution feels daring and entirely on brand. Later on, that younger scientist, fueled by hate and loss, will make a decision that puts the entire planet at risk, showing how disappointment in humanity's missteps can lead to desperate, misguided solutions.

Fans of the books will find some tweaks here to make for better television, amping up the thriller elements of the story to ask a compelling question: How to fight an alien enemy targeting the world's scientific progress?

As the characters in 3 Body Problem lurch toward answers, we all get to bask in an ambitious narrative fueling an ultimately impressive tale. Just remember to be patient as the series sets the stage early on.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.