Prometheus finalist Three Body Problem inspires two TV series with a classic sf “sense of wonder”

The Three-Body Problem, a 2015 Prometheus Best Novel finalist and landmark international bestseller by Chinese sf novelist Liu Cixin, has now inspired not one but two TV series worth watching.

Three Body, available free with Amazon Prime, is a 30-episode Chinese series. Netflix also has tackled its own TV-series adaptation of Cixin’s epic novel with a recent eight-episode first season.

Leading libertarian thinker Virginia Postrel has praised both TV series as good SF, along with the English translation of the novel.

“All three versions produce the sense of wonder that is science fiction’s—especially hard science fiction’s—traditional appeal. The stories take place on a grand scale and are propelled by mind-expanding scientific ideas,” Postrel wrote in her “Virginia’s Newsletter” Substack column on “3 Three Body Problems and the Appeal of Science Fiction.”

Postrel clearly appreciates good science fiction.

At one point, she compares the novel and series favorably to Heinlein in at least one important aspect:

Writer Virginia Postrel in 2009. (Creative Commons license)

“Watching the Netflix series… reminded me of why reading old novels generally conveys more about their historical milieus than reading contemporary novels set in the past. You learn from what isn’t explained—what goes without saying.

“It’s an old science fiction trick, pioneered by Robert Heinlein, to plunge the reader into a setting without explaining. “I always get the shakes before a drop,” is the famously opaque opening to Starship Troopers.(Here’s a dissection of the technique  Heinlein uses in the opening paragraph.)

“When you’re inventing the setting you know what needs to be explained, however slowly. When you’re living in it, you assume the reader understands. The result is more immersive. Also, you don’t have to wonder about 21st-century anachronisms.”

Postrel enjoyed the Netflix version even though she found it less interesting than the Chinese version on Amazon because it’s British and substitutes British scientists for the original Chinese characters.

“For non-Chinese audiences, the novel and Chinese series offer a second appeal that is also characteristic of science fiction. They transport us into settings that are unfamiliar yet not so alien as to be incomprehensible. The institutions, history, habits, and cultural values are Chinese, as are most of the characters. By experiencing these stories we come to understand slightly better what it means to be Chinese. Like the science, the milieu is mind-expanding,” Postrel writes.

The novel’s mind-expanding science-fiction plot centers on an alien invasion that’s telegraphed four centuries before the alien ships will arrive in our own solar system, prompting major social and scientific changes on Earth.

Besides its superior SF and exploration of ideas, Cixin’s novel was ranked high enough by LFS members and Prometheus Award judges to become a finalist because it also wove in anti-authoritarian themes based on the devastating history of oppression by China’s Communist dictatorship under Chairman Mao.

A young astrophysicist, whose life is molded by experiences during China’s brutal Cultural Revolution, makes crucial decisions about the future of humanity in the first-contact novel. The struggle to make rational sense of the universe, using methods of logic and science, is essential to nearly all of the human and alien characters.

To its credit, the Netflix series begins during the frenzied peak of the Cultural Revolution. The first episode doesn’t pull any punches in depicting an elderly Chinese scientist yanked onstage before a mob of young revolutionaries for villification and ridicule.

Pressured to confess his alleged sins against communism – “sins” like having integrity, valuing education and history, and respecting facts and science, even when they don’t fit into an extremist ideology’s narrow preconceptions – the elderly and weak man pleads for pity and forgiveness. Instead, he’s brutally shoved by a young Chinese woman revolutionary, sparking his accidental fall and death.

A child, witnessing his death from the crowd in tearful horror, is his daughter. Soon enough, the episode jumps forward to reveal her decades later as an adult scientist, one of those who make contact with the distant aliens. And tragically, it’s her childhood trauma and resulting distrust of and contempt for humanity, that leads to a pivotal decision triggering the alien invasion that threatens the future existence of humanity.

Both TV adaptations reward viewing, but don’t forget to check out Postrel’s full column.

When Postural quotes Liu’s afterword, she reveals her own deep appreciation for the literature of science fiction and the broader perspective the best of sf can offer.

“The stories of science are far more magnificent, grand, involved, profound, thrilling, strange, terrifying, mysterious, and even emotional compared to literature….The three-billion-year history of life’s evolution from self-reproducing molecules to civilization contains twists and romances that cannot be matched by any myth or epic,” Liu writes in the afterword.

Science fiction, Postrel concludes, is a literature of the sublime.

Note: Postrel is the author of the seminal libertarian classic The Future and its Enemies, along with The Substance of Style, The Power of Glamour and, most recently, The Fabric of Civilization.

Prometheus, the light bringer (Creative Commons license)

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page  for comments, updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,  jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

 

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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