Can Netflix's Most Ambitious Sci-Fi Show Do Justice to the Story's Epic Scope?

The next big show from the Game of Thrones creators won’t be straightforward.

One of the most popular science fiction book series of the 21st century could be the next massive TV series hit on Netflix. Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is about to become 3 Body Problem, dropping in January 2024. The series is produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and will be their first major project since the end of Game of Thrones on HBO.

Netflix has released the first trailer for 3 Body Problem and it looks massive. But, for those who haven’t read the books — or even for those who have — there’s a lot going on in this trailer, so much in fact, it may not even be giving the epic scope of the story justice. Yet.

Here are three key details about 3 Body Problem, glimpsed in the trailer, that will make you think that this show’s ambition is much bigger than it might seem.

3 Body Problem has an alternate past, present and future

Throughout the series, 3 Body Problem creates an alternate history insofar as it asserts that something called “Red Coast” existed in communist China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. The trailer shows us a few glimpses of Red Coast Base from the book, which, is a 1960s/1970s radio transmitter station, set up to try and contact aliens. The character we see working at Red Coast Base is Ye Wenjie, played both by Zine Tseng in the past, and by Rosalind Chao in the present.

Yes, 3 Body Problem will span several centuries and if the show makes it through all three books — collectively known as Remembrance of Earth’s Past — we’ll even get into the future and also deeper into the past.

A VR game is central to the story of the first book

3 Body Problem, the game!


Most of the bigger context of the first book is about the impending invasion of aliens called the Trisolarans and the chaos that creates on Earth. The title “Three-Body Problem” comes from the fact that the Trisolarans live on a planet that orbits three different stars. This causes their planet to have massive shifts in environmental stability. In order to get various humans on board with the idea of helping the Trisolarans, a video game is created called “Three Body,” in which people try to figure out how to navigate these rapid shifts in climate. In the trailer, we see at least one character donning a headset to play this game. In the book, this game is a huge clue that unravels a global conspiracy connected to the invasion of the Trisolarans.

But, relative to the trailer, a lot of the trippy imagery could be from inside the game. Or, some of it could be scenes from flashbacks that later books have, that go even further back into history and prehistory. The point is, because of the existence of the Matrix-esque VR game, and the huge time jumps in the book, some of what you’re seeing in this trailer may not be exactly what it seems.

Carl Sagan narrates the trailer

Carl Sagan in 1981.

Tony Korody/Sygma/Getty Images

If you didn’t recognize his voice inside a modern TV trailer, you’re totally forgiven! But, throughout, there are quotes from Carl Sagan:

“As children, we fear the dark. Anything might be out there. The unknown troubles us. There are those who say we should not inquire too closely into who else might be living in that darkness. Better not to know. But we continue to search. Life looks for life.”

This is a truncated version of a longer passage from Sagan’s famous book Pale Blue Dot. Interestingly, one part of the original quote that is left out, in a way, spoils the later books in the series. In the original, full quote, Sagan says: “Ironically, it is our fate to live in the dark.” By the third book, Death’s Head, people are living out in the dark, in deep space.

The story of 3 Body Problem eventually encompasses centuries. It concerns philosophy, meditates on the imagined reality of alien contact, and what it means to be human. Reading the first book ahead of the show is probably a good idea. But, reading Carl Sagan beforehand is a good bet, too. This is going to be big.

3 Body Problem hits Netflix in January 2024.

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