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3 Body Problem: Here’s what the title of Netflix’s alien invasion saga means

Published Mar 10th, 2024 8:37PM EDT
3 Body Problem on Netflix
Image: Netflix

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Netflix is just days away from debuting one of its biggest and most-anticipated releases of 2024 — 3 Body Problem, an alien invasion TV series helmed by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in what will be their first TV project since Game of Thrones ended back in 2019.

The first reviews for the new show have already begun to trickle out, and they herald a sci-fi gem of breathtaking scope and ambition. That’s welcome news both for the co-showrunners as well as for Netflix, which took a big gamble on the pair. Whatever they chose to do next, of course, was always going to have some Westerosian-sized shoes to fill, yet the creators made things even tougher for themselves by adapting an extremely cerebral sci-fi novel — specifically, the first installment of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy.

That novel, The Three-Body Problem, is less concerned with splashy entertainment than it is with profundity and with the nature of the universe. It’s largely about the ramifications of an alien invasion and the potential destruction of Earth — but let’s set that aside for a moment, because there’s something that I’d argue bears explaining even before diving into the finer points of all that.

3 Body Problem on Netflix
Liam Cunningham as Wade in “3 Body Problem.” Image source: Ed Miller/Netflix

For anyone coming to 3 Body Problem fresh, an understanding of what the show’s title means would probably go a long way in helping them to appreciate the thought-provoking new series once it hits the streaming giant on March 21. So let’s answer the question: What is a three-body problem?

Basically, it’s a problem that exists in physics and mechanics and manifests itself in the following — when you have three particles or masses orbiting each other, there’s no single, clean equation that will tell you where each of those bodies will be at any given time. It’s just too chaotic, in other words, to try and use math to predict those three locations.

If you make that scenario much simpler, on the other hand, you can use an equation to reach such a solution. Imagine that instead of three bodies, we now have just one — it’s you, and you’re driving in a car at a constant rate of speed. The simple formula of “speed x time” is an easy way to calculate the distance you’ve traveled. Which is to say, if your speed remains constant, this formula will always reveal your future position (unlike the future positions of the three bodies in the three-body problem, for which no such formula exists).

Furthermore, the idea of a three-body problem can also be lifted out of the mathematics realm entirely, in order to describe all kinds of scenarios where the introduction of a third factor invites instability, unpredictability, and chaos.

3 Body Problem on Netflix
Eiza González as Auggie Salazar in “3 Body Problem.” Image source: Netflix

Here’s one example from the world of politics: Think back to President Obama’s first term and the launch of the so-called Tea Party in 2009. There were, of course, two main political parties in the US, but the introduction of the Tea Party meant there were now at least two factions inside the Republican Party jockeying for influence — traditionalists and insurgents. Another way of expressing this idea is that there were now three distinct political forces battling each other: Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Party Republicans.

Within the context of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem — the cast of which is sprinkled with Game of Thrones veterans like John Bradley and Liam Cunningham — similar dynamics unfold.

A faction of humanity learns about the imminent invasion of aliens from the far-off planet Trisolaris. As the name implies, that planet has three suns, the existence of which leads to periods of chaos there. Long story short, the aliens want to leave and come to Earth to take it over.

But there’s another three-body problem of sorts here, and it’s found in the different reactions that humanity has to the aliens’ arrival. The aliens will reach Earth in 450 years, leading some people to wonder why they should bother preparing today since they won’t even be around to deal with the outcome. Others, disillusioned with the state of the world, want to work with the aliens in exchange for a sort of immunity from their destructive intentions.

All of that only scratches the surface of what viewers are in store for with 3 Body Problem — a complex, multi-layered drama that’s shaping up to be one of the TV events of the year.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.