The imperialist problem of '3 Body Problem'
Friday, 14 June 2024 10:31

The imperialist problem of '3 Body Problem'

Dennis Broe outlines 3 Body Problem’s imperialist problem. Image above: the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a moment of chaos 

In Culture and Imperialism, Palestinian scholar Edward Said details how the great works of Western literature are part and parcel of the fabric of imperial domination of the West’s, and in this case particularly Britain’s, exploitation of what is sometimes called the Global South.

Said speaks primarily of the 18th through the 20th centuries, from the “menace” of Sherlock Holmes’ Asian villains rematerializing in the imperial center of London, to the barely acknowledged Caribbean plantation, source of the wealth in the Bronte novels.

That mindset endures and is interwoven into the fabric of Western television entertainment, be it in the BBC One series The Driver, recently adapted for American TV as Parish, which highlights the savagery of the gangsters from the former British colony of Zimbabwe to the supposedly more sophisticated treatment of China, another former imperial territory, in Netflix’s Spring TV blockbuster 3 Body Problem.

The series was adapted for Netflix by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, from the trilogy by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. It opens with a scene, not in the novel, from the Maoist Cultural Revolution, set in 1966, where one of the lead characters Ye Wenjie (body number 1) watches her physicist father murdered on stage by Chinese Red Guards for refusing to propound revolutionary dogma.

Ye Wenjie later goes on to become an astrophysicist herself, but in episode 2 makes a fatal decision regarding extraterrestrials, based on her encounter at a labour camp with the female Red Guard member who refuses to renounce her participation in the death of her father.

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Oxford, multicultural source of technological progress 

From the opening scene of revolutionary carnage the series then shifts to the present in Oxford and to a group of physicists centred around a particle accelerator, seen as the most advanced center of scientific development in the world and whose project manager is body number 2.

One of the “Oxford 5” group of alumni scientists and entrepreneurs Jess Hong, then enters a virtual world (her avatar is body number 3), which returns to the Chinese dynastic period where she observes Emperor Zhou’s territories threatened by a mysterious plague. She is appalled by this menace to the empire and wonders how to prevent it.

We have here then a classic case of Said’s Culture and Imperialism, updated for the popular entertainment medium of 21st century streaming TV. The Cultural Revolution, despite its glaring deficiencies, sparked proletarian literacy and was a first step toward the mass scientific breakthrough that has now led China to taking on the West in terms of technological advancement – Huawei and Tik Tok are both in the process of being blockaded by a West that cannot compete.

The entire revolutionary enterprise is presented as simply an exercise in savagery and intolerance and is immediately contrasted with the material and scientific sophistication of “Oxford,” the representative of multicultural openness. Here, even its capitalist “entrepreneurs,” in the form of GOT’s John Bradley as Jack Roony, a clumsy and likable practitioner of the art of streamlining jobs and work – i.e. firing employees – and the mysterious oil tycoon Thomas Wade, are concerned with saving humanity.  

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Reviving the dynastic emperor 

In order to find a positive view of China in the series, it is necessary to return to the dynastic period, before the 100 years plus of revolutionary struggle, both democratic and socialist, which freed the country from the “century of (Western) humiliation” and the yoke of the emperors, a period which is here presented fondly.

This imperial backbone should not come as a surprise from Benioff and Weiss, who undertook the project after three failures. Left on their own without the George R. R. Martin novels which they had followed through season six, particularly the final 8th season of Game of Thrones amounted to little more than battlefield carnage with a disappointing ending in which “Westeros” does not allow for a progressive leadership.

At that point, the channel HBO, flush from the overall success of the series, was ready to make whatever they proposed. The team came up with Confederacy, an “alternative history” series in which the South wins its freedom and re-establishes slavery, an idea so patently regressive that HBO was forced to reject, after an outcry. The pair then went to Disney proposing to apply the GOT combination of imperial blood and sex to Star Wars, the streamer’s key franchise, which was also rejected.

And so they found their way to Netflix, the most commercially successful streamer, which was more than willing not to re-institute slavery but to re-found the imperial myth of the Chinese and Global South “jungle” and the Western “garden.” Plus ça change......