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Extended Universe

Starting as a fan project, animated web series My Three Body has garnered acclaim and fame for its faithful adaptation of author Liu Cixin’s award-winning sci-fi trilogy

By NewsChina Updated May.1

Li Zhenyi’s first encounter with the sci-fi world was in the boiler room of his primary school in Qingdao, Shandong Province. An elderly boilerman, who loved to share books with students, gave Li a crumpled, coverless copy of Science Fiction World, China’s biggest sci-fi magazine. Li was hooked. 

In high school, Li devoured Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem when it was first serialized in Science Fiction World. 

Li clearly remembers feeling “electrified” in 2006 when he first read about the “Dark Forest Theory” proposed in the trilogy’s second installment, The Dark Forest. Seeking to answer the Fermi Paradox, named after physicist Enrico Fermi which basically asks “Where are all the aliens?” the Dark Forest Theory likens intelligent civilizations to armed hunters stalking through the trees. If they find another lifeforms, they open fire and eliminate them. “It’s based on reality but unfolds a picture way beyond our recognition. It’s so marvellous, so creative!” Li said.  

That same year, two other high schoolers would fatefully be drawn to the book. One of them was Ben Tusi from Sichuan Province. The Dark Forest was released the day Ben sat the strenuous national entrance examination. When Ben’s father asked him what he wanted most after the exam, he said “just get me a copy of The Dark Forest.” 

The other was a student from Jiangsu Province known only by his pen name, Dr. Baa.  

Their passion for Three-Body would bring them together years later. Since 2014, they have been creating an animated adaptation of the series, My Three Body. Its third season finale based on The Dark Forest was uploaded to streaming site Bilibili on March 11. The third season tells the story of Zhang Beihai, a Chinese naval officer who evades an alien civilization to preserve hope for the future of humanity. 

Three-Body fans approve. My Three Body has received a whopping 9.7/10 on leading review site Douban, where it has won praise for its storylines, visual effects and music. 

Passion Projects
“All I’ve been doing these years is introducing The Three-Body Problem series to everyone,” Li Zhenyi told NewsChina.  

Until recent years, sci-fi was very niche in China. In high school, no matter how many times Li recommended Science Fiction World magazine and The Three-Body Problem, his classmates were not interested. “They were more into fantasy novels,” Li said. 

Li studied abroad in Pau, southwestern France. Indoorsy, he spent most of his free time on the internet, playing online games and watching documentaries about space exploration on Bilibili. 

In 2014, one year before The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for science fiction, Li was studying French at a preparatory school. Just like in high school, he felt the strong urge to share the series with his friends. He attempted to translate the first two pages into French. His French teacher pointed out “tons of errors.”  

Li is also a fan of Minecraft, an immensely popular open-world game where players use blocks to build anything they can imagine. He then had an idea for an animated video based on The Three-Body Problem. Ingeniously, he used Minecraft to create the background and characters and found actors to dub the voices.  

 Li uploaded the first episode of his newly produced My Three Body to Bilibili on February 27, 2014. The first episode revolves around the death of Ye Zhetan, a physics professor and father of main character Ye Wenjie, who is killed after he refuses to denounce Einstein's Theory of Relativity during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).  

Initially, the first and second episodes only received roughly 2,000 views and few of comments. But that may be because Bilibili’s administrators only allowed registered users to view it as the first episode mentions the Cultural Revolution. 

Now, the 11-episode first season on Bilibili is filled with “bullet comments,” or text-based reactions from viewers that fly across the screen. One of the more popular comments is “keji baozha,” or “technology explosion,” an idea from The Three-Body Problem that says a weak civilization, through an explosive development of technology, can surpass a stronger civilization in a short amount of time. The comparison means My Three Body has seen similar explosive development. 

Li created a QQ chat group to recruit like-minded people into the production team. By the end of the first season, the group had more than 1,000 members. Through interviews, Li’s initial production team for My Three Body had 10 people. All were students and Three-Body fans.  

Series screenwriter Dr. Baa was among them. At the time, he was studying medicine at a major university. “I joined the team purely out of passion,” Dr. Baa told NewsChina.  

When in primary school, Dr. Baa bought a copy of a novel by American sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov from a street vendor. He has been fascinated with sci-fi ever since. He read Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem in high school. It was a transformative experience. “It was like being spiritually reborn. It made me realize that life is not just about basic needs. We can also care about broader and grander issues like the fate of humanity,” he said.  

Faithful Adaptation
An initial challenge for the team was the special effects scenes that couldn’t be created simply through Minecraft. For instance, “Operation Guzheng” involves the destruction of an alien ship with a trap set on the Panama Canal.  

Li Zhenyi instead decided to study 3D animation online. “Since there were no professional animators in our team, I had to learn myself to attract professionals,” Li told NewsChina.  

Li’s Operation Guzheng scene, though relatively crude by today’s standards, thrilled Three-Body fans eager to see a classic battle scene that had previously existed only in their imaginations.  

But there was another battle ahead. Copyrights to the The Three-Body Problem were first sold in 2009. Five years later, YooZoo Pictures picked up the rights for the series.  

By that time, author Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel, attracting unprecedented attention to Chinese sci-fi. That year, YooZoo Pictures announced production for the film adaptation was in progress. Work on the film has since been suspended.  

Sci-fi fans are generally wary about adaptations. While eager to see the Three-Body universe expand, many were concerned that one poorly made movie could bring that universe crashing down. 

The success of sci-fi megahit The Wandering Earth (2019) rekindled interest in The Three-Body Problem series. Recently, the franchise’s copyright holder and fans alike have further adapted the series through media such as short videos, animation, stage and radio.  

Wang Ren, a postgraduate at Columbia University’s Department of Agriculture, won unusual praise for his 14-minute short “Water Drop” based on The Three-Body Problem. “I would die happy if an adapted feature could create the aesthetics as perfectly as this one,” Liu Cixin said about the short.  

But Li Zhenyi’s visual adaptation is firmly established as a fan favorite. And with their film project suspended, YooZoo Pictures created a subsidiary, Three-Body Cosmos, to capitalize on their copyright ownership and acquired Li’s My Three Body.  

A still from My Three Body, The Legend of Zhang Beihai

Origin Stories
Before Dr. Baa came on board, the only experience he had was as a playwright for his university drama club. But the team chose him not only for his extensive knowledge of sci-fi literature but also his high degree of scientific literacy.  

The screenplays for the first two seasons draw heavily from the original books. For the third season, however, Dr. Baa focused on crafting an origin story for Zhang Beihai, the Chinese naval officer. 

An example of Dr. Baa’s attention to authenticity and detail is an added conversation between Zhang Beihai and Bill Hines, former head of the fictional European Union in the story.  

In the original story, Zhang and Hines choose to enter hibernation in order to help reinforce future human beings. But Dr. Baa imagines the characters meet briefly beforehand to discuss their plans.  

Ben Tusi is the concept artist for the third season of My Three Body. Like Li Zhenyi and Dr. Baa, Ben had no previous experience in animation. In 2018, he was working at a meteorological bureau in Sichuan Province. Ben is a diehard fan of Liu Cixin. In his spare time, he would study industrial design and animation through online courses.  

Ben told NewsChina that one reason for My Three Body’s success is his team’s fidelity to the Three-Body universe. In order to authentically reproduce the Japanese garden at Bill Hines’ mansion, Ben flew to Hangzhou to visit the Japan-China Friendship Garden. While designing the spacecraft, the team spent two days discussing every detail the book describes with Three-Body fans, from wing type and mass ratio to ignition systems. 

My Three Body, The Legend of Zhang Beihai has more than 20 million views online and has a user rating of 9.9/10 on Bilibili. “It has the spirit of the original work,” one Sina Weibo user wrote, praising the series as the “pride” of China’s animation industry.  

Li said the last six years have been “like a dream.” “Originally I just wanted to introduce The Three-Body Problem series to everyone. I never imagine that one day my simple passion would become my career,” he told NewsChina.