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Society & Culture

Two Versions of the "Three-body problem" Make for Six Kinds of Headaches

Feb 21, 2024

Liu Cixin’s imaginative and path-breaking science fiction novel, “The Three Body Problem,” is a rare-successful crossover to the English language market for such fiction and has now been adapted to film. 

The first version to come out, produced in China by Tencent, is a skillful but rather drawn out thirty-part series loyal to the original setting, tone and language of the story. Next month, an international version produced by Netflix will be released, testing the waters for Chinese science fiction with American characters and characteristics, and the Hollywood touch. 

Having both versions released in short order will no doubt be pleasing to fans of Liu Cixin’s fiction, though they are bound to break into two camps, each strongly favoring one over the other since the language of production, in every sense of the word, differs. 

That’s not to say the “Chinese version” doesn’t offer some glimpses of Hollywood magic, or the “American version” by virtue of having a large number of non-Chinese cast and crew, will not have any fidelity to the original story, which is rooted in racially-neutral science, but it does raise interesting questions about culture in translation. 

Already author Liu Cixin has entered the fray of comparative treatments, concluding that American entertainment values need to “clearly distinguish white from black,” while Chinese can handle a more nuanced and ambiguous conclusion in keeping with the original story. 

The furor also serves to remind viewers that while cultures may vary from place to place, the laws of physics are supposed to be the same everywhere, and if they are not, the universe as we know it, and earth’s very existence is in trouble, wherein lies the crux of the story. 

The title itself speaks to the story’s fascination with physics. The Three-Body problem refers to the leap in Newtonian computational complexity between two objects moving in relation to one another, and three. The moon goes around the earth, and while each perturbs the other to a differing degree, the strong pull of the earth on the moon and the gentle tug of the moon on the earth are calculable. Add a third body, say another moon, and the math and physics get complicated and the orbital paths play out according to chaotic dynamics more difficult to predict. 

At the core of the story is a not-too-distant interstellar civilization that has three suns instead of one, and they are known as Trisolarians. They have a problem with the chaotic conditions of a fundamentally unstable system, which imbues their three-body problem with existential stakes. 

The novel differs in English and Chinese, too, starting with the title, which is 三体 (‘san ti’ or three body), in the original but rendered “Three-Body Problem” in English. Ken Liu and Joel Martinson shared translation duties, the first and third section done by the former, the second section by the latter. 

The Chinese-American translator Ken Liu who, coincidentally, shares the same surname as the author, explains that he added notes and made changes to better reach a Western audience, and not just in the choice of language. The Cultural Revolution scenes are played down in the Chinese version, in part reflecting authorial focus but also political realities in China. The same scenes are amplified by getting put up front and center in the international English release. Variety summed up the dilemma with the following post from a Chinese Weibo user: “With the background of the Cultural Revolution, the mainland doesn’t dare shoot it and foreign countries can’t shoot it well.” 

But it’s not just China that has issues with the story. Netflix was criticized by Marsha Blackburn and a group of rightwing U.S. senators for “normalizing” alleged human rights abuses in China by doing business with Liu. Perhaps in reaction to this, Netflix is said to be watering down the Chinese elements of the plot, which in turn has led to accusations of “white-washing,” since most of the Netflix cast is not of Chinese descent. 

Yu Wenjie, an embittered Chinese scientist, working at an astronomical observatory in China of the 1960s, overcomes the limits of the almost comically backward computer technology of the time—clunky mainframes and ticker tape—to make a breakthrough in extraterrestrial communication with another civilization. Dispirited by the chaos of the times, she invites the aliens to visit earth. 

This shocking discovery is mostly kept under wraps until the present day setting for the story, which is mostly set in China in the early 2000s. 

There are mysterious goings-on in the global world of specialized physics research as one after another prominent physicist is found dead, presumably from suicide, after embarking on research on the same delicate topic. 

The reluctant protagonist, Wang Miao, is a nanomaterials expert who gets drawn into the intrigue when Yang Dong, an attractive woman he met only once becomes one of the mysterious victims. Why did she throw her life away, so accomplished a scientist with so much promise? It turns out it was her mother who made the initial contact with the aliens during the 1960s and now, an old woman, she retains a cold air of mystery and secrecy that is hard to fathom. 

Much of the humor of the show, and comic relief from the difficult and dour realities of high-end physics and potential civilizational collapse, comes from the mouth of a sassy policeman who doesn’t understand the science but is a sharp judge of human nature. Shi Qiang stands in for the everyman, and offers a hint of hope in an otherwise relentlessly gloomy story, doing what he can to keep the absent-minded scientists in line and the audience enthralled. 

The Tencent version is an impressive production considering political limitations of shooting in China on a relatively modest budget of ten million U.S. In March, the Netflix version will drop, along with some jaws, depending on how much the story has been twisted to suit American tastes, but the special effects promise to be good. 

That’s Hollywood! 

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