Though Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking pieces of speculative fiction to come out in recent years, you wouldn’t know it judging from the way that Netflix has (barely) been talking about 3 Body Problem, its forthcoming adaptation of the novel from Alexander Woo, D.B. Weiss, and David Benioff
During this year’s Tudum, essentially all of Netflix’s larger profile projects due out in the coming months, like Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and The Witcher’s third season, were spotlighted in segments that gave you a sense of what sort of energy their respective creative teams were working with. But when it came to the segment focused on Netflix’s forthcoming adaptation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Tudum got a little stiff and curiously boilerplate-y in a way that did little to say much about or hype up the show.
During their brief time in the spotlight, Woo, Weiss, and Benioff shared that they’ve recently completed production on 3 Body Problem’s first season and opened up about what initially drew each of them to the project. Like Liu’s novel, Woo described their 3 Body Problem as “a history of humanity from the point of first contact with an alien civilization all the way to the end of the universe,” and Weiss emphasized how they were intrigued by the sheer scale and scope of Liu’s vision.
At a time when studios have become comfortable essentially spoiling the entirety of their features and series with their advertising campaigns, there’s something slightly refreshing about how relatively little noise Netflix has been making about 3 Body Problem since news of its production first broke in 2020. But at an event like Tudum meant to signal to Netflix’s subscribers what all the fuss around its “hotly anticipated” projects is about, it was a bit of a letdown to see 3 Body Problem’s executive producers and some of its cast vaguely summarizing the show as a “big” and “complex” epic without really saying or showing anything to back those claims up.
To be fair, the true depth and breadth of Liu’s The Three Body-Problem — the first in a trilogy of books spanning multiple centuries — is difficult to sum up within the span of two minutes. Though the story does eventually become one about how profoundly the world changes after humanity makes first contact with sentient extraterrestrial life, from the very beginning, Liu contrasts its grandeur with a close-up focus on the small, pivotal moments in a society’s history that have outsized impacts on the shape of the future.
Before The Three-Body Problem shifts its focus to the different ways that Earth’s nations respond when aliens make their existence known, the novel spends a sizable amount of time setting its stage with a brutal and frank reflection on China’s Cultural Revolution. More than merely establishing The Three-Body Problem’s reality as one similar to our own, the time Liu spends examining the immediate and long-term repercussions of China’s Revolution-era policies is one of the big and brilliant ways the book prepares you for the macro view of the universe the series ultimately takes.
That close-up, micro view of China’s specific history and the way The Three-Body Problem frames it as one relatively small piece of humanity’s record in the grand scheme of all things are also part of how the book primes you to appreciate its ideas about technological development. Technology as vectors of human evolution and the concept of societies working as a kind of organic circuit aren’t exactly unique to The Three-Body Problem. But the way Liu’s books intricately weave those ideas together and use them to ground the trilogy’s story as it becomes increasingly mind-bending is as artful as it is impressive, which is presumably what Netflix wants 3 Body Problem to be.
That was obviously the kind of impression Apple wanted people to get from the handful of teasers it dropped for Foundation — David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman’s series that, thematically, has a lot in common with 3 Body Problem — in the buildup to its premiere. Foundation might not have been able to live up to all of its hype, true, but presenting viewers with a clear view of just how ambitious any given project is is an important part of how studios set them up (but obviously don’t guarantee) their success.
There’s still ample time for Netflix to start talking about 3 Body Problem with the passionate specificity and confidence of a studio that genuinely believes it has another hit on its hands. But if Netflix really wants 3 Body Problem to be its next big thing meant to electrify the world and convince newcomers to sign up for the streaming service, it’s going to have to step its game up quite a bit before the show debuts sometime in 2023.