Last month, Netflix released the first season of 3 Body Problem (or 3BP) – an eight-part science fiction series based on a trilogy by Chinese engineer turned novelist Liú Cíxīn (刘慈欣). The premise of the show offers a possible answer to the Fermi paradox, a concept named after famed Italian Nobel laureate who asked the question; why haven’t we encountered intelligent life in the universe? The paradox assumes (unconfirmed) extrasolar planets which orbit various neighboring stars, and that intelligent life could hypothetically develop on some of them. 3BP disconcertingly suggests that the answer to the paradox is that competing species, upon mutual discovery, will pursue destruction of one another.

The show’s title, taken from the first novel of the series, involves a conundrum in Newtonian physics. Isaac Newton published his first volume of Principia in 1687 describing the motion of two bodies under gravitational influence. It states that calculations for three or more bodies yield chaotic trajectories and cannot be analytically solved in closed form except for a few special cases. In practice, neglecting the mass of the extra bodies enables adequate approximation.

A Rich Story Told in the Past and the Present

Much of the drama revolves around three interwoven sets of protagonists: Ye Wenjie, five former physics researchers from Oxford, and participants in Britain’s Strategic Intelligence Agency (SIA). The Oxford alumni are Saul Durand, Jack Rooney, Auggie Salazar, Jin Cheng and Will Downing, who all studied under Vera Ye, daughter of Ye Wenjie. Thomas Wade leads the SIA in gathering domestic and extra-terrestrial intelligence, while Clarence Shi serves as an investigator. Each character has his or her own perspective and imperatives, which includes tragic interaction at times. The dialog is respectively presented in either Mandarin or English, depending on location and setting.

The season opens in 1966 with Ye Wenjie witnessing her father’s fatal beating on stage in Beijing during China’s Cultural Revolution (a scene that unsurprisingly sparked controversy when it was viewed there). Sentenced to work at a radio telescope in the desolate landscape of Inner Mongolia, Ye engages in extraterrestrial search and realizes that bouncing transmitted signals from the sun amplifies their power. While searching for an auxiliary telescope site, she encounters conservationist and future philanthropist Mike Evans.

Meantime, in the present-day UK Durand discovers empirical anomalies which frustratingly the audience has no clue what these might be – spontaneous proton decay, supersymmetric quarks, shift in the fine-structure constant? Durand reports these findings to Vera Ye at Oxford, who subsequently commits suicide. Vera’s death brings the Oxford five together to attend her wake, and Salazar starts seeing numerical digits that resemble a countdown. Later, Shi notices patterns regarding multiple violent deaths of prominent scientists. Back in 1977, Ye Wenjie receives an alien warning to discontinue further transmission. Despairing of man’s inhumanity, she nevertheless affirms contact with the unknown technological civilization.

In the present, Salazar abruptly discontinues her nanofiber research. Cheng and Rooney mysteriously receive chrome virtual-reality headsets, which introduce them to an alien species known as the San-Ti ren (三體人) or “three-body people” who suffer from planetary catastrophes caused by chaotic environmental or tidal effects from orbiting three stars. Later, Downing confides to Rooney of his terminal pancreatic cancer. Disconnected from these developments, Evans engages in worshipful radio communication with the aliens aboard his converted oil tanker Judgment Day, which hosts cult acolytes of the San-Ti.

Some Considerations and Reflections on 3BP

These events set the stage for the series, and further description risks spoiling the remaining narrative. One interesting conundrum involves the San-Ti notion of objectively false (but not dishonest) correspondence. Their thought concept seems rather binary – a statement is either true or false, and if the latter, then the communicator offers only untrustworthy deceit. No option allows for truncation and metaphor for brevity, or analogy from history or fantasy, or opinion separated from fact. The San-Ti’s conclusion yields unfortunate consequences for many, but galvanizes Wade to prepare for invasion and conquest. Apparently, "turning the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39) with regards to the San-Ti doesn’t appear to present a viable option for our survival.

This sense of credulity provides a reminder that nuance and metaphor may not have universal acceptance. For example, in the sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest (1999), the ingenious Thermians lack the ability to perceive that the Terran broadcasts they intercepted were elaborate fiction intended only to entertain humans. Instead the Thermians assume these episodes to be historical documentaries, which inspire them to create versatile faster-than-light spacecraft in which to ply the cosmos. Despite their skills, they become vulnerable to the deadly Fatu-Krey. Eventually they learn that humans succumb to lies, especially when convenient.

The first eight episodes of 3BP demonstrate the producers’ attention to detail. The scenes, pacing, visual effects and performances show careful execution. The cinematic effects, while intermittent, display imagination and instill ominous dread (especially the fifth). The eerie score contributes to the apprehension of participants involved. Although the frequent cursing does not conform to my own interactions with scientists and engineers, it is poetic license. But given the stakes – deferred annihilation à la War of the Worlds (1953) – such tension-filled responses are understandable.

One minor “diversity” issue should be explained. The Oxford five have a much lower male-to-female ratio than typical of a university physics department; yet Chang and Salazar seem more career ambitious than their masculine counterparts (excluding Rooney). First, it is a story for a wide audience. Second, and more importantly, within a technically challenging field, male students seem less discouraged from low grades than female students – consequently, those women who remain can become higher achievers than their average peers.

A Series for General and Scientific-Minded Audiences

Science fiction in film has often been relegated to the niche fandom of nerds – who are nitpicky on realism and impossible to please without expensive optics and non-juvenile dialog. The past several decades have witnessed gradual changes to this – perhaps a legacy of the Apollo lunar program in the American conscience. Across the globe, many societies now recognize the importance of science and technology in our lives – for both good and ill.  These fields remain among the few broadly respected endeavors in part due to their rigor and (outside medicine) their having little direct influence on politics, despite the occasional hijacking by tyrannical climate alarmists and social media platforms.

Carefully constructed cinematic forays on the small screen can engage both technical and general audiences. The most recent example that comes to mind is Person of Interest (2011-2016), which outlined the tradeoffs inherent in a society that is under omnipresent surveillance by an artificial intelligence, with drama coalescing around characters with specialized skills who are tasked with the physical protection of others. The Expanse (2015-2022) might also be included, with its focus on the crew aboard the Martian corvette Rosinante. However, its off-world futuristic world-building with competing populations within our solar system may appear more compelling to engineering-oriented viewers. The first season of 3 Body Problem belongs to the broader category, with expectation of another.

Photo Credit: Space. com