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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

When Westerners See More and Understand Less: Comments on Netflix’s 3-Body Problem

I adored Cixin Liu’s trilogy, tearing through the books back when they came out. The translations deserved all their awards. Although I tend to write more character-driven stuff, I love reading the Chinese style of science fiction: propelled by big ideas with math/science-heavy asides that only Neal Stephenson gets to do in Western science fiction.

 

Of course, I watched the adaptation that just dropped on Netflix. Like the English language version of the book, it began during the Cultural Revolution. (For political reasons, Liu reordered the story for the original Chinese version; he now says the English translation is the best version.) However, I was surprised to see non-Chinese characters in rewritten main roles in the Netflix adaptation. There were other changes, too. It’s television—emphasizing thriller plotting over math asides comes with the territory. And I’ve met physicists before—having actors play them who could have also starred in Baywatch amused me. But it worked. It’s different, but I still enjoyed it.

 

There was one aspect where I was disappointed they decided to go with H.L. Mencken’s adage, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” In the book, Ye Wenjie is so broken by the Cultural Revolution that she turns misanthrope. She hates humanity so much that when aliens invade with the intent of killing everyone, she offers to help. This is intentionally shocking; that level of hatred haunted me, even though I had read enough real-world history to understand it.

 

In the Netflix series, she sees the environmental devastation in the name of progress and reads Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. She concludes that humans aren’t capable of taking care of their planet and the aliens might do a better job, deciding the TriSolarans will be humanity’s savior. The moment she is disabused of this notion is the moment we see a person destroyed. She is a tragic figure familiar to Westerners: the misled idealist. And she is sorry.

 

I liked the book’s badass who unapologetically wants all humans dead better. Why wouldn’t other Westerners have grokked this? It’s not like we didn’t have comparable figures in our history: Ed Teller, for example. The “nationalist Christian” fascism of Teller’s native Hungary led him to flee to Germany, where he eventually earned a Ph.D. in physics under Werner Heisenberg. Then, being Jewish, he fled Germany in 1933. You would think such a man would eschew right-wing politics and possibly join a Communist or Socialist party. But no, he hated them even more. Working for the Manhattan Project, he became known as the father of the hydrogen bomb. His politics drifted further and further right as he aged, with him eventually joining Ronald Reagan’s inner circle and selling Reagan on the Strategic Defense Initiative (the boondoggle derided at the time as “Star Wars”). He was a misanthrope. Many of his associates claimed he grew to hate all of humanity because of what he’d experienced under Horthy and Hitler. How better to destroy humanity than to cheer on their militarism?

 

This story was well-known. If Americans could understand Teller, why couldn’t we understand Ye Wenjie as Liu wrote her?

 

Could it have had something to do with our recent history of bipartisan efforts to start a second front in our new Cold War? Today’s news is of the Biden administration trying to convince China to stop exporting green technology, explained as part of his efforts to bolster our domestic producers. And no reporter seems to have gotten the irony of the country that, up to recently, decried government support for companies as making the playing field unfair for competitors now claiming a desire to favor their companies.

 

Under Obama, partnership with Xi Jinping, speaking with one voice on climate change, was the mantra. As was support of fracking domestically and aiding Alberta’s super-dirty tar sand extraction, but at least he pretended to be the good guy. Biden doesn’t bother. And Trump has appropriated John McCain’s “Drill, baby, drill” slogan, hoping American memory is so short that they’ll think it came from him, not from the guy he called a “loser” for being captured by the Vietcong.

 

If I’m guessing correctly, the showrunners were trying to go with the flow, highlighting the brutality of the Cultural Revolution while adding a new emphasis on its environmental destruction. (To be fair, the US was just as bad in those years environmentally.) Or were they subtly trying to subvert the Cold War mania by making Ye Wenjie more relatable to Americans? As all the good guys lived in London, not China, I’d favor the first hypothesis.

 

Ye Wenjie, as Liu originally wrote her, also suggests a broader point. It’s a rare person exposed to trauma who decides they hate all of humanity, but deciding to hate part of humanity is common. And not always the part it would be rational to hate. Spike Lee explored this phenomenon in his movie Da Five Bloods with Delroy Lindo’s character Paul, whose suppressed trauma leads him to become a Trump supporter.

 

Closer to my home, Miami Cubans still reliably express hatred for anything remotely progressive because, to them, Castro was left, so everything not borderline fascist is suspect. At least they are somewhat consistent, although the Democrat Party could hardly be called communist.

 

The conflict currently dominating the news also arose in part because of this dynamic. The ancestors of half of Israeli Jews emigrated from Muslim countries. In most of these countries (but not all; Morocco was a clear exception), Jews were persecuted. When they arrived in Israel, they found their type of Judaism not respected by the secular, socialist establishment. In 1977, their support led a former terrorist, Menachem Begin, to the prime ministry. His party is in power today, led by Netanyahu. Both of these men are of European descent.

 

Nonetheless, the Mizrahi Jews voted right and still trend right, keeping politicians vehemently opposed to a Palestinian state in power. Many conflate Palestinians with people from the countries they fled into this existential threat of mythic proportions—the Arabs, or sometimes the Muslim countries if Iran is part of the equation. The politics is us versus them. The generational wounds are at least part of the explanation for this group’s political predilections. As a result, Gaza faces impending catastrophic famine, with a majority of Israelis still supporting the war.

 

Season one of 3-Body ends with humanity largely united against the alien common enemy. And highly militarized. One character, Auggie Salazar, stands apart. Methinks she will be the interesting one to watch if this show gets a second season.


It's not easy to transcend us versus them. But humanity requires it.

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