Three-Body Problem: science fiction for China’s ‘New Era’?

The following article by David Peat – Iskra Books editorial board member and secretary of the Friends of Socialist China Britain Committee – discusses the new Netflix adaptation of Liu Cixin’s novel The Three-Body Problem, comparing it with the original book and with last year’s Chinese television adaptation by Tencent.

While describing the Netflix adaption as “admirable in many respects”, David considers that the series is somewhat let down by “poor scriptwriting and ham-fisted characterisation”. Compared to the Chinese adaptation, the Netflix version is too fast-paced, packing too much into a small number of episodes. “With more room to breathe, the novel and the Tencent series also bring out other elements” not covered by the Netflix series, including ecological themes.

David writes: “It has been noted that recent Western science fiction, particularly in cinema, is based either on simplified superhero narratives or extremely pessimistic dystopian/post-apocalypse scenarios, and this reflects a spiritual and ideological absence in late capitalist culture.” Liu Cixin, by contrast, “focuses on proactive and creative responses to long-standing and seemingly intractable problems affecting the whole of humanity.” As such, “Liu Cixin’s stories are fitting science fiction for China’s ‘New Era’ period of continuing socialist construction, undertaking (and more importantly achieving) its own enormously complex and profound projects of poverty elimination, green transformation, and high-quality development.”

David concludes that the Three-Body Problem has the potential to foster cultural understanding and people-to-people exchange between China and the West, “opening a door to the captivating world of Chinese science fiction for a global audience.”

This article contains no spoilers for any of Liu Cixin’s works or their adaptations.

The Three-Body Problem (三体), a science fiction novel released in 2006, counts as perhaps the major cultural ‘crossover’ success of China in the last decade. This was true even before the release of the new Netflix television adaptation of the book, released on the 21st of March 2024, and produced and written for the screen by Game of Thrones show creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, alongside Alexander Woo.

That the creators of arguably the largest television ‘phenomenon’ of recent years saw fit to choose Three-Body as their next project is testament to the cultural impact of this work within China and, increasingly, in the wider world. All the more interesting since the author Liu Cixin, a cultural icon in the PRC, refuses to repudiate his country’s revolutionary history, including its current governing party, the Communist Party of China. As such, he cannot easily be co-opted as a ‘dissident’, and those seeking to market and adapt his works in the West find themselves in the awkward position of having to promote an author who is proud of his country’s achievements and is able to critically engage with the historical path of the Chinese revolution in a productive way, avoiding what Xi Jinping refers to as “historical nihilism.”[1]

This article will look at the original book series, as well as a Chinese-made (Tencent) adaptation from 2023, and compare them with the recently released US-made (Netflix) adaptation. It will assess the relative merits of each version, different audience reactions to these series, as well as some wider considerations of the differences between contemporary Western and Chinese science fiction.

Three-Body Problem was published in China in 2006. The book is the first of a trilogy, with subsequent volumes titled The Dark Forest (黑暗森林) and Death’s End (死神永生), with the trilogy collectively known as Remembrance of Earth’s Past (地球往事). It achieved broad commercial and critical success domestically, with Liu’s works accounting for 2/3rds of the Chinese science fiction market, and abroad, with translations into more than 20 languages. In English, the first volume of the trilogy, translated by Ken Liu, received the coveted Hugo Award for ‘Best Novel’ in 2015, the first non-English speaking writer to do so. Liu Cixin’s dominance of modern Chinese science fiction can also be seen in the enormous domestic (and moderate international) success of film adaptations of his Wandering Earth novel, with China selecting the second instalment in this film series as its submission for this year’s Oscars.

The plot of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series is difficult to summarise, especially when trying not to spoil anything. In general, the action initially takes place in a near-contemporary era with the deaths by suicide of various theoretical and applied physicists around the world, many of them leaving cryptic notes suggesting something along the lines of “Physics doesn’t exist.” The first book also jumps back to Mao-era China and follows Ye Wenjie, herself a gifted physicist, during the Cultural Revolution and subsequent work at a radio telescope base in Inner Mongolia. In the broadest possible strokes, the series can be considered an ‘alien contact’ story, but it also touches on themes such as ecology and human development, ‘game theory’, the capacity for ideological groups to form depending on external circumstances, global cooperation to overcome multi-generational problems, and high-level physics concepts.

The books were extremely well-received, with many praising their creative and inventive use of scientific concepts, enormously ambitious ‘high-concept’ action sequences, and philosophical themes. Equally, however, some readers critiqued the series, suggesting that these overwhelmingly abstract ‘ideas’ take centre stage, to the detriment of any focus on interpersonal drama and character development. As such, for years it was considered that the novels were ‘unfilmable’.

There had been a few abortive attempts at adapting the book series in China, in animation, or even video game form. Eventually, the Chinese company Tencent succeeded and released a 30-episode series in January 2023. This covers the events of the first novel, Three-Body Problem,,in exhaustive detail, and is considered a highly faithful adaptation, often with dialogue taken straight from the novel. On release, it was praised by fans of the book, with strong performances, excellent cinematography and impressive special effects, especially for its budget and the fact it was a Chinese television drama. However, there were also some criticisms, from both domestic and international audiences, which criticised the show’s irregular pacing, poor performances by non-Chinese actors, and the ‘old-fashioned’ CGI of the ‘video game’ section of the story.

Continue reading Three-Body Problem: science fiction for China’s ‘New Era’?

Review: Creation of the Gods I

Below is a brief review of the recently-released Chinese blockbuster movie, Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms. We would like to thank Trinity CineAsia for inviting Friends of Socialist China to attend a special showing and Q&A in London with the film’s director of photography.

This review is written by David Peat, an editorial board member of Iskra Books.

Those who have been paying attention to recent Chinese ‘blockbuster’ cinema will have noticed a qualitative shift in terms of the size of productions, the level of visual effects, and the confidence in representing both contemporary and historical Chinese stories. While wuxia (martial arts historical drama) with enormous casts, impressive sets, gravity-defying choreography, and beautiful costumes have for decades been one of the most popular Chinese cultural exports, the Chinese film industry was not typically well-known for its special effects. As recently as 2015, the general consensus with domestic audiences could be summed up by a slang term: 5元特效 “5 cent VFX”. However, with films such as the Wandering Earth series, the PRC’s film industry has shown it can offer a spectacle just as impressive, if not better, than the west. 

That’s not to give the impression that the Chinese film industry is seeking to merely imitate Hollywood (whose ‘blockbuster’ offerings amount to endless sequels/revivals of increasingly exhausted intellectual property) but instead, the recent tranche of highly-polished cinematic works are squarely aimed at consolidating a vibrant domestic filmmaking industry, telling distinctively Chinese stories that will also have global crossover potential. This appears to be working, with China’s cinema market becoming the second-largest in the world in 2016, and the dominance of Hollywood-made films falling from 48% in 2012 to just 12% in 2021.

The latest cinematic ‘event’ in this burgeoning industry is Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, a historical fantasy epic based on Chinese mythology. Inevitably referred to as “China’s Lord of the Rings”, this is an adaptation of the 16th-century novel Investiture of the Gods which itself tells a fantastical history of the transition from Shang dynasty (1600–1046 BCE) to Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BCE). Released in July domestically, it went on to be the top-grossing film of the season, and likely the year. The production is absolutely enormous, with the trilogy expected to be the most ambitious and expensive in Chinese film history. Wuershan, the Chinese director from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, heads up the 2,000-strong crew on this epic project, and in fact did consult with Peter Jackson (the creative force behind the Lord of the Rings series) before getting started on this ambitious trilogy.

The story, which will be well-known to Chinese audiences, features a wide range of characters, with emperors, demons, demi-gods, evil magicians, and army generals, as well as a focus on the Emperor’s Royal Guard (which is composed of the sons of the most powerful regional Lords, to fend off rebellion). In spite of this, the film opens with Prince Yin Shou, as a general of the Emperor’s army, putting down a regional uprising with great violence. In the course of this, inadvertently awakening a fox demon who possesses the body of the daughter of the defeated, rebellious Lord. She talks her way into avoiding becoming another victim and accompanies the prince back to the imperial capital, becoming a concubine for the prince, and going on to encourage his aspiration to become ‘King of All Realms’ (by any means necessary). However, the manner of his ascension, as well as the widespread violence of putting down the earlier rebellion, incurs the wrath of the Gods who bring about ‘The Great Curse’, causing suffering in all corners of the land (and whose effects are shown in blighted crops, fouled water, and illness). The immortals of a spiritual plane known as ‘Kunlun’ send down some of their own to our world with a magical scroll called the ‘Fengshen Bang’, which, if activated by the King of All Realms, can bring about an end to The Great Curse. However, upon arrival at the royal palace, the demi-gods realise the cruel and untrustworthy nature of the current King, and worry that the Fengshan Bang may be used for evil instead of good. As such, they decide to flee and hope that any next king may be a more suitable recipient. The story goes on to chart the adventures of the demi-gods and their allies trying to prevent Yin Shou from gaining possession of the magical artefact, as well as the attempts of would-be usurpers of his throne, including a potential candidate who may be worthy of bringing an end to The Great Curse. 

The set pieces are of an epic scale as would be expected from the Oscar-winning production design of Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon & Red Cliff), with enormous battle scenes, and Tim Yip’s amazing work with costuming is also on display. Since the era depicted is so historically distant, historical accuracy would be difficult to measure, however he was inspired by surviving Shang Dynasty bronze artefacts. The performances tend towards the melodramatic, as befitting the grand mythological stakes, with the egotistical and cruel Yin Shou (played by Fei Xiang, aka Kris Phillips) as well as the fox-demon’s host Su Daji (played by Naran) being particular standouts. The visual effects take centre stage and are (mostly) impressive, with one particularly powerful sequence of a fight with a giant, crumbling stone tiger magically brought to life being reminiscent of the lauded Shadow of the Colossus video game. All in all, the film is an entertaining and well-paced fantasy epic, and a great introduction for western audiences into a new and intriguing mythological tradition.

This film is the first part of a trilogy, and those who were bemused by the ending of Dune’s first film may take warning that this film likewise ends very much looking to the subsequent episodes, and it follows the contemporary tradition of a number of ‘mid-credits’ sequences setting up future events. It is, however, an enjoyable story in its own right and an excellent introduction to a wide range of characters, many of which will presumably play large parts in the forthcoming sequels, which are set to be released in China in 2024 and ‘25 respectively. 

Creation of The Gods is distributed in the UK by Trinity Cine Asia. The film will be released on streaming services next year.