Friday 19 July 2024

New poetry videos and a cultural feast from Anna Chen

Anna Chen's poetry and politics at TikTok

Culture and politics converge in Anna Chen’s video surge

I’m delighted to announce I’m adding more videos to my long form writing as found extensively on this website. I’ll be spreading the love to TikTok and YouTube.

My TikTok page got off to a promising start with POE, my funny poem about Edgar Allan Poe, garnering 218K likes in a week. Oh, now 219.3K. Yup, who knew the dark story-lord had so many fans? I’m going to keep this up. It’s not like I’m short of material, heh! Please bookmark the pages and follow.

Political and cultural commentary feature as it’s my contention that they are not separate but inextricably linked in service to power. It’s just that the West is so much better at it. That’s not a surprise considering that the US poured so much money into its cultural domination wars.

Culture wars always and everywhere

For example, spearheading the international art world with its wave of modern art. Francis Stonor Saunders explains this brilliantly in her book, Who Pays the Piper? I bought this when it was published around 2000, having been told about this corner of the culture war as a yoot by British artist and critic Patrick Heron in my home-from-home in St Ives, Cornwall.

Hollywood is well known as operating as the main arm of the US propaganda machine with many books and articles now available about the role of the CIA and the Office of Strategic Affairs in its movies. Whoah! Did you know that Hollywood suppressed the Weinstein revelations under the influence of Certain Parties?

One reason America is so good at concealing its mass manipulation is that it’s had decades of practise in its advertising industry. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders is the classic text on this subject.

America has an army of psychologists with nothing better to do than researching new and more effective ways to twist your melon completely out of shape. This has added to the the already existing Yellow Peril tropes embedded deeply in Western culture ever since the 19th century Opium Wars and the eight-nation alliance of murderous bandit powers that maimed and pillaged China for a hundred years.

I’ve been investigating this geopolitical friction from Empire for 30 years, ever since I took Suzy Wrong – Human Cannon to the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 1994 — a first for a Chinese Brit. See my various writings on this such as Yellowface: the erasure of a race, Sinophobia and the political roots of racism, and A Permanent Reservoir of Scapegoats and many more.

Poetry videos and radio series

In addition to my culture and poetry videos, and having the perfect face for radio, I’m going to be uploading 16 episodes of my pioneering ResonanceFM series from 2013 and 2014, Madam Miaow’s Culture Lounge. I’m aiming to get these up on YouTube and at this website over the rest of the year. So do have a listen to what someone straddling two major cultures since birth has to say about them.

Boomers poem at TikTok

The Diss Persists poem at TikTok

Friday 14 June 2024

Three Body Problem review: the politics of novel, Netflix and Tencent

Three Body Problem review by Anna Chen, Netflix, Tencent

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Netflix and Tencent TV series adaptations

Reviewed by Anna Chen, First published 6 May 2024

8-part Netflix 3 Body Problem

30-part Tencent Three-Body


Book One of Remembrance of Earth’s Past

How did the Three Body Problem work as a book, a Netflix series and a Chinese Tencent series? That’s a Three Body Problem in itself.

There once was a time when any American or British playwright or scriptwriter would have taken the concept of Cixin Liu’s stupendously successful Chinese science fiction trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and run with it. Adapting other people’s histories to your own world experience with insights and dramatic skill has been our strong point ever since Chaucer read Virgil and Shakespeare refracted Holinshed.

Genius always stands on the shoulders of giants. Netflix’s eight-part series 3 Body Problem had the opportunity to dramatise Book One of the Hugo Award-winning blockbuster series and illuminate it through a western lens. But, instead, they turned it into a banal addition to the multiple-body of China-hate currently pervading every nook and cranny of the culture like a cancer.

Yes, we geddit. China bad, West good. Hulk smash.

It’s as if Western intelligentsia drove their egghead brains into the buffers of late-capitalism when its contradictions bit them on the bum. The resulting cultural entropy and breakdown misses chances for enlightenment and insight: as illustrated in the new Netflix series.

As I’m fond of reminding everyone, the cultural superstructure collapses into the economic base. Sadly, even Netflix, with all its resources, can’t break out of this gravitational nosedive and avoid being pulled into the black hole of US-led geopolitics. This isn’t helped by the author’s own inner Ye Wenjie pressing that big red button and replying to the siren call from afar.

Overall, the eight-episode 3 Body Problem is strong on pacing but glosses over the science and philosophical ideas that drive the novel. Sacrificing content for spectacle and action loses much of what makes the book interesting. The 30-episode Tencent Three-Body series made for Chinese audiences is truer to the book and its ideas, but it suffers from longeurs and repetition. A stronger edit could lose it a few episodes and prove that sometimes less is more. Both have strong production values reflecting how much was spent on these two mega-projects.

The Cultural Revolution

Three Body Problem, Book One of the trilogy, kicks off with the traumatising events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a reverse-mirror event of our own swinging sixties which took place in an expanding post-war economy. Lucky us.

China had no such luxury. It faced an assortment of obstacles across more than a century of hardship including the decaying Qing dynasty, opium wars, ridding itself of colonial rule (yes, I’m looking at you, Britain), the birth of the republic, civil war, war lords, sadistic Japanese occupation, revolution, a vicious Korean war, famine, embargoes used to starve the fledgling state into submission, and a war against itself in the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

The chief antagonist who gets the story rolling is astrophysicist-to-be, Ye Wenjie. She is only a teenager when, to chants of “Root out the bugs,” she sees her physicist father publicly denounced as a counter-revolutionary intellectual and beaten to death by the young Red Guards who’ve been entrusted with preserving the purity of the revolution.

Betrayal looms large as her own younger sister is one of the patricidal ideologues on the stage, who are full of passionate intensity but too immature for wisdom. Her terrified mother also piles in with accusations. Later, a journalist who Wenjie trusts saves his own skin by stitching her up as the author of a tract he has himself written about the western ecological book, The Silent Spring. You can’t trust those feckless intellectuals.

The aliens are greener on the Other side

Wenjie’s world is relentlessly hostile and it takes its toll on her. More sinned against than sinning, at least in the beginning, she will end up committing the biggest betrayal of her own kind, less as revenge, more trying to help out what she sees as her ruined planet and her own species who are responsible. It is The Silent Spring that, in a tortured logical fallacy, finally sparks her motivation for doing the awful deed that dooms humanity.

“It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.”

Having chosen lifetime incarceration at the top secret Red Coast Base run by the People’s Liberation Army, which transmits communications via a monster nature-destroying satellite dish in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, the damaged Wenjie has access to the outside force she believes can awaken humanity.

Which, given the clues including an alien message warning, “Do not reply,” is a helluva gamble.

Three Body Problem novel by Cixin Liu

Dark mirror

The first book in Liu’s trilogy uses the Cultural Revolution as the initial setting, and its harrowing events as motivation, for Ye’s action. Liu himself has some dim childhood memories of catastrophes occurring as the chaotic young communist nation struggled to stabilise and reconstruct itself. Everyone loves a winner. His critique of China’s politics and besottedness with the West is hard to miss. Giving aid and comfort to an opposing system that could destroy your kind lies at the core of his villain, so you could read Wenjie as a dark mirror version of the author.
Netflix’s 3 Body Problem seizes on the Cultural Revolution opening and foregrounds it into a simplistic device colouring the whole narrative, essentially ascribing a moral paralysis to China that makes it responsible for world destruction. It’s an unpleasant seed to plant in the current climate of war fever while, of course, absolving the West from any culpability after nearly two centuries of pumping out pollution since the Industrial Revolution and numerous wars.

The Tencent version runs in the other direction and only reveals the book’s opening scene fully somewhere around Episode 24, focusing instead on the science and philosophy within in a detective mystery.

First serialised in a Chinese-language science fiction magazine in 2006 and then published as a novel in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, the events of Three Body Problem are framed by the pendulum swing from the chaos of the revolutionaries’ tragic attempt to prevent a recidivism back to the destructive system they’ve just overthrown, to the new era of wealth and stability.

Yellow Peril tropes for the 21st century

Fifty years after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese can take stock and enjoy the new normal: the eradication of absolute poverty, the growth of the biggest middle-class on the planet and the emergence of, whisper it, a new bourgeoisie. But humanity is about to learn of of the existential threat lying four light years away in the Centauri star group, set in motion by Ye Wenjie in 1979.

This is where the Netflix series gets ideologically stuck and hollows out. While the book and Tencent’s Three-Body series explore the whys and wherefores of chaos and stability in a modern setting, Netflix acknowledges no such contrast for Chinese society. We are shown Chinese only as cyphers unless they are here and thoroughly westernised; always at work, never at play. They are spotted in flashbacks to the bad old days, never in their homes with family or in bars, or restaurants as in the Tencent. In short, the Chinese are dehumanised.

The inference drawn is that the Cultural Revolution opening is a static backdrop to a failed China which is, under the glittering surface, dark-age mysterious, sinister and no good for its inhabitants. Especially when the China scenes are all shot with the same grey misery filter the BBC reserves for communism while safe old Ingerland is filmed in full colour.

As one viewer succinctly put it on Twitter/X, “The Netflix series makes the Cultural Revolution into an eternal symbol of Chinese Evil which is contrasted with Western Good.”

BOOK ONE and TENCENT – Three-Body

In the book, you can read a serious attempt to make sense of what goes wrong, what goes right and why. All within a largo-paced SF story about Trisolaran aliens, human beings grown mad with grief and the big logical fallacy that sets the story in motion.

Tencent’s Three-Body series, which follows the book closely, provides a glimpse of the Chinese people looking at themselves as the protagonist of the story, the driver of their own destiny, while pursuing philosophical enquiry as well as a detective-thriller investigation.

After the opening Red Coast Base scene, we cut to the present, 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. Back then, China was riding high, about to debut on the world stage as the benign rising superpower that could put on a stunning show demonstrating how far they’d progressed from just making our cheap tat in suicide factories.

This was the start of a Golden Age when the Chinese were looking forward to spending their hour in the sun and sitting at the Top Table, previously the domain of the western developed nations. China was about to save the global economy from America’s Great Financial Crash and prove itself to be the good guy in the new era of stability. What could possibly go wrong?

The detective quest

Equilibrium is upset by the suicides of top scientists who were connected to the mysterious Frontiers of Science cult. Our hero and protagonist, nanotech engineer Professor Wang Miao, is enlisted by the authorities to help the investigation. He learns that the dead scientists include Dr Ye Wenjie’s daughter, the lovely string theorist Yang Dong, on whom he has a crush, making his involvement personal and applied, not just theoretical.

Wang is goaded by a gruff, earthy police detective and former soldier, Da Shi Qiang, who, after initial antagonism meeting cute, will become his sidekick.

“I’m not a good cop,” he tells Wang, annoying his colleagues and establishing himself as a disobedient, wilful anti-hero — quite risque in Chinese society which is emerging from a tradition of disdaining individualism. The series’ honourable attempt at Hollywood-style character construction harks back to a grinning Errol Flynn swashing his buckles, and is done with mixed results: sometimes sweetly buddy-buddy, at other times clunky and toe-curling.

Major-General Chang Weisi of the PLA asks Wang to take up Japanese physicist Shen Yufei’s invitation to join the Frontiers of Science group in order to infiltrate the organisation, which he’d previously rejected as far too theoretical in their exploration of the limits of science. Wang’s applied research is aimed at getting things made, specifically, nano-fibres that can cut through anything.

Wang agrees to join, telling Da Shi: “A person’s ability to discern the truth is directly proportional to his knowledge.”

This, of course, idealistically assumes one’s objective is to find the truth, the raison d’etre supposedly lying at the heart of 400 years of fact and science-based Age of Enlightenment which may well be coming to an end in the West (See Netflix’s wasted story opportunities).

Peace origin of Three Body Problem

Televised in 2023, with the benefit of hindsight and the foresight dread of Things To Come, Tencent’s Wang probes Chang about his war anxiety and points out that there are no hot-spots in the world as this is “probably the most peaceful period in history.” And, indeed, it was peaceful when the book was published in 2008. And even when Ken Liu’s English translation was published in 2014, there’s a feeling of, phew! Thank goodness we’re living in this part of history. However, by the time of TV production, the fictional fear is bleeding into reality.

In both The Three Body Problem book and Three-Body, Chang tells Wang he’s lucky if he’s never known a complete change, a crisis. A comment that becomes loaded with irony as the series was made over the period of deteriorating relations with the USA superpower.

“The entire history of humankind has been fortunate. From the Stone Age until now, no real crisis has occurred. But if it’s all luck, it has to end one day. Let me tell you: it’s ended. Prepare for the worst.” This sounds like the Tencent series preparing Chinese viewers for a major calamity and reversal of fortune.

And so life imitates art. Or perhaps the art sensed what was in the wind and provided a cathartic outlet in a science fiction metaphor for an underlying collective dread of an enraged imperialism.

It’s painful to hear the same words from the 2008 book uttered with a new meaning in 2023 that’s like a death plunge into an abyss. At this point metaphor and real life collide. Something even worse than the Opium Wars, World War 2 and Japanese fascism slouches its way here.

Story dynamics — what works and what doesn’t

You can see why audiences prefer the Chinese Tencent version. The first two episodes are gripping, serving up a rich, complex stew, explaining physics and particle accelerators with the aid of a drunken pool table demonstration. Street hallucinations and a rich, imaginative palette of visuals from the smallest quantum sub-atomic particles to the biggest cosmic vista are vividly delivered.

Viewers aren’t talked down to but are assumed to have enough of a grasp of basic scientific principles to find credible the science in the world of the story. The Shooter hypothesis is simply explained and illustrated, as are the turkey scientists of the Farmer hypothesis, a most entertaining series high point. They’re fed regularly and looked after … until the day they aren’t. But they’re not to know that until it’s too late, poor delicious turkeys.

But the visual medium of film and TV has different demands to the speed of a book if you’re sticking to it literally and literarily. By episodes four or five, narrative drive threatens to grind to a halt, suffering from stasis and repetition. One influence seems to be the mesmerising German hit series, Dark, sharing with it a hypnotically atmospheric sound design, but with many of the narrative-pacing flaws that sometimes made watching it feel like wading through wet cement.

Long pauses have to earn their screen time and deliver meaning through skilful set-up and story momentum, not left as vacuums hoping to be filled by profundity: it is a Zen emptiness we crave.

The animated turkey scientist story is a delight but one which loses its power with each telling — and it was retold frequently with little variation. Adding drag, a whole ten minutes is spent explaining why the sun is a super-antenna.

Three-Body Tencent series - turkey scientist

San-Ti’s little helper

Nostalgic and grateful for the leg-up out of its century-of-humiliation doldrums, the book leans into adoration of the West and its science figures such as Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Copernicus, and one Chinese philosopher Mozi, as if China did little up to modern times. But if Chinese astronomers hadn’t been active, we’d never have known about the RCW 86 “Guest Star” supernova in 185AD, or the supernova that created the Crab Nebula in 1054, also seen by a monk in Flanders as a “bright disc”.

Not having a time machine, Liu couldn’t foresee China’s vast clean-up and the effect its green tech would have on the world, as he was writing at a time when Beijing was bathed in smog all year around from manufacturing affordable goods for western consumers. The Silent Spring book to which Liu defers through his chief antagonist, Wenjie, has long been eclipsed by events as genius takes a giant step for mankind onto the shoulders of giants.

It’s not until Episode 18 of the Tencent that the core Trisolar story gets going, reaching the book’s beginning. In Episode 24 we finally see in flashback the full inciting incident as shown incompletely in the first episode.

It’s worth hanging in there as the story deepens and picks up when it is revealed that the misanthropic oil billionaire and Adventist Mike Evans is helping the Trisolaran San-Ti invade Earth because he is a species egalitarian who sees humanity as sinful. And of what importance is the human species in the vastness of the universe? A fossil-fuel oligarch’s son who transfers his hatred for his eco-destructive father onto the human race, he devotes his love and obedience to the off-planet daddy figure, the distant voice of the San-Ti he calls “Lord”.

Along with Redemptionist Ye Wenjie who wants to work with the San-Ti to solve their Three Body problem, these two narcissists decide the fate of the world due to an inability to come to terms with the hurt done to them. (I see parallels with war-mongers and whoever released the Covid virus.)

Their betrayal backfires when the Lord realises how treacherous and duplicitous humanity is, being capable of saying the opposite of the truth even if it’s a fictional fairy story. The San-Ti see humanity as an existential threat and resolve to destroy it when the fleet arrives in 450 years, clobbering their science first. Sounds familiar? Just as Wenjie could not foresee the San-Ti’s deadly turn, neither could the author see his idealised American system doing the same and turning on his kind.

3 Body Problem Netflix series - virtual reality Trisolaris

NETFLIX — 3 Body Problem (March 2024)

Half an hour in to Netflix’s eight-part 3 Body Problem, the godless, heathen Chinee hate old things. There’s little sense of history or science. Only the West has a sense of God. To get a snog, give a girl a book about pesticides. Foregrounding the Cultural Revolution horror up front as a five-minute pre-credit sequence without paying it off with society’s contrasting progress, establishes it as China’s underlying mindset in the present; a misery mise en scene only relieved by an English language book and western values, of course.

Unlike the book, it denies China’s emergence from the period, repairing & reconstructing itself, and catching up with the West. It reinforces China as Other with a single positive male ethnically Chinese character, detective Officer Clarence “Da” Shi, who works for the British Strategic Intelligence Agency (MI6), a reassuring presence played solidly by Benedict Wong.

After establishing Cultural Revolution horror without the nuances of the book or Tencent series, 3 Body Problem transfers to the safe familiarity of the West and a murder mystery. We know who dunnit — the victims themselves — but we don’t know why.

3 Body Problem Netflix series - Red Coast Base

The Oxford Five

The present-day story starts with its wheels rolling, with Clarence/Da Shi arriving in the present at the scene of a grisly death of a scientist where sequential numbers, possibly a countdown, are scrawled in blood on the walls.

A second scientist, Vera Ye (Yang Dong in the Tencent series, daughter of Ye Wenjie), commits suicide at the Oxford University Particle Accelerator after the project is shut down, and leaves her colleague and friend, Saul, to investigate why the physics is wrong, “science is broken” and whether God exists.

Two of Saul’s scientist buddies, Auggie Salazar and Jin Cheng, function as Three-Body‘s Professor Wang split across two characters. (Jin is the only other positive Asian apart from Clarence/Da Shi.) They are all members of Vera’s Scooby-gang group-protagonist of university friends; dubbed the “Oxford Five,” it includes Jack the snacks business mogul and Will, Jin’s cancer-ridden ex-boyfriend.

Like Professor Wang, Auggie is a nanotechnologist. They both begin to hallucinate numbers in a countdown sequence. Wang spends ages identifying his mysterious numbers appearing in the photos he takes and in his wider vision. Auggie learns what the big lightshow numbers filling her vision mean within the first thirty minutes as events are economically collapsed into one scene: sinister Adventist Tatiana demands she close her nanotech company or else, and says the sky will wink at her as proof. It does.

After demonstrating that her nano-fibres can cut through diamond, Auggie orders her company to shut down its development with seconds to go before the countdown reaches zero.

Three Body Problem in virtual reality

Both series pursue the mystery of the dead scientists and the cults who hold the key. Both enter the Trisolaran realm via the Three Body Problem virtual reality game: Netflix via a headset, and Tencent through two full-body suits and helmets, the suits being the more believable experience. However, the gorgeous, shiny, metallic Netflix helmet does look more alien and its Trisolaran virtual world is funnier, inhabited by Earth science legends played by popular British comics. The game sequences are little filmlets in themselves.

The VR game within the detective mystery requires the players of both series — Wang and Da Shi, and Jin Cheng and Jack — to solve the problem of the three “flying star” solar bodies: the triple suns’ orbits can have no focus point, making it impossible to predict periods of chaos and stability. Accurate predictions allow the population to either dehydrate and survive the roasting sun and big freeze, or hydrate and continue to develop their civilisation to higher levels of the game until they can conquer space travel.

Wang tries to unravel the science while Jin’s role in the Netflix version is to mark out western scientific superiority over the Count of the West’s Asiatic mysticism. Again with the subliminal defining Chinese culture as primitive Other. They should have had a Galileo character trying to persuade the Church of the superiority of science.

The BBC misery filter

One thing Netflix 3 Body Problem does effectively is the fate of Mike Evans’s ship the Judgement Day, a wandering community of his Adventist followers. However, the success of this climactic scene is despite the disturbing addition of children on board — not in The Three Body Problem — whose only purpose seems to be to ratchet up emotional involvement. Dead children, even pretend ones, is not something most of us wish to be seeing right now.

Both versions had me squirming but it was Netflix that dialled up the tension to eleven and had me watching through clenched fingers.

For some unearthly reason, in episode 7, Netflix sends Wenjie untried and unpunished from England back to where it all started at the Red Coast Base for her final fate (ambiguous in the book, but certainly not by anyone else’s hand). It’s in China so it’s still relentlessly bleak and shot through that hazy grey BBC filter even in the present. This was a chance to show China’s current contrasting state of stability and development but it only follows her to the graveyard decay of the old SETI project.

One viewer said dryly on Twitter, “If Dr Ye had been shown landing at Beijing Daxing Airport then travelling via High Speed Rail through Futuristic Chinese Cities, Three Body Problem viewers may have thought the San Ti had arrived early & started fixing human problems.”

3 Body Problem Netflix series - virtual reality game

Sophon supercomputers

The Tencent series ends Book 1 bleakly but on an optimistic note. Aided by pacifist Trisolarans in the VR game, Wang and Ding discover how the invasion will happen.

The Trisolarans have been targeting Earth’s technology on the quantum level with advanced protons in order to contain and keep us primitive — shades of US objectives to contain China. With every destruction of an unfolding proton, raised from one to eleven dimensions, entire universes can be destroyed. Raised to 2 dimensions it is big enough to wrap around Trisolaris and create Wisdom One (Sophon One in the book), a supercomputer beyond mere AI.

At this juncture in the book, there’s a ton of science exposition that requires reading several times and I congratulate Three-Body for paring it down as well as they did. I can, however, picture the triumphant script-writing meeting at Netflix after bringing in their their economic explanation at under two minutes, manuscripts and champagne corks flying through the air and producers yelling, “Eff it! Science, schmience! We’ll just have terminally cancer-ridden Will’s brain shot into space to save us!”

Back to Three-Body: once Wisdom/Sophon Two, Three and Four are built, the first two are launched towards Earth at the speed of light where they will hide in the particle accelerators and deliberately give out wrong results and create false miracles like blinking stars. Wisdom Three and Four act as receivers allowing monitoring of humans in real time while the invading Trisolaran Interstellar Fleet is in transit, expected to arrive at Earth in 450 years.

And so to the end …

Wang and Ding (Yang Dong’s widower) despair drunkenly over humankind’s imminent extinction four and a half centuries hence. A terminally cancer-ridden Da Shi cheers them up with a rousing speech in a field of locusts comparing their resilience to that of bugs that survived the worst that humans have thrown at them. Individuals may die but humanity will survive. In the face of species obliteration this is about as much optimism as can be mustered under the circumstances.

Netflix Clarence takes depressed Saul and Jin to a field of cicadas where he gives a similar speech but uses cicadas for his metaphor which makes less sense as we all like cicadas, rather than locusts which no-body does and have indeed survived age-old attempts to wipe them out.

Tencent’s Ye Wenjie ends the book on a literal cliffhanger when granted a visit to the Red Coast Base camp to see her last sunset before her life sentence for crimes against humanity begins — all shot affectingly without BBC grey haze. You see, it can be done.

Like all the women in the Tencent Three-Body series, even the aging Wenjie is exquisitely beautiful, as if Chinese society is terrified of its anima being perceived as ugly or even slightly imperfect. This fear of being seen in all its variety hints at a lack of confidence, pressure to conform to rigid standards of beauty instead of letting rip with women from across their fabulous range. Women are not pioneering leaders outside pure science. They echo western stereotypes of man-pleasing lotus blossoms or mysterious dragon-lady villains. Chinese men are not similarly constrained in Three-Body as they are in the Netflix.

“You are bugs”

In the absence of Chinese males in Netflix 3 Body Problem, Clarence/Da Shi does a lot of heavy lifting but he works for the “good guys” so is allowed a rounded character. Other Chinese men, mostly seen in flashback, are rendered mysterious.

One might suspect that the only good Chinese is one working for the Western state: for the remnants of an empire currently trying to revive the worst aspects of itself and itching to wreak havoc in the spirit of Winston Churchill.

So when the San-Ti tell us Earthlings, “You are bugs” on tech screens throughout the world in different languages, I thought of Winston Churchill and what he had to say about “Red Indians,” native Australians and Palestinians.

At the Palestine Commission in 1937, Churchill said of Palestinians: ” ‘I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to those people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, or, at any rate, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.’

He might as well have cut to the chase and said, “You are bugs”.

The very first words of Episode 1 are “Root out the bugs,” equating the Communist Party of China with the murderous species from Trisolaris. A crude transference of the crimes of Western imperialism onto the patsy as the Viking raiding party seeks a casus belli and gears up for war in Asia.

We are witnessing in a great crossover the anguish of the European group that has brutally dominated the world for centuries and fears that they are about to end up on the receiving end of what they dished out: as the dinner, not the diner. Of course, this is pure projection of a guilty conscience but try telling them that.

A WASTED OPPORTUNITY: Possible story directions

We now arrive at the direction the Netflix series could have taken had it been motivated by artistic excellence commenting on the world we now find ourselves in instead of plugging into the US geopolitical agenda.

It is possible for American culture to critique its own system. We’ve seen this vividly since Grapes of Wrath, The Jungle, All The President’s Men, JFK and Apocalypse Now to Westworld, Fallout and many others. Netflix 3 Body goes retrograde and reinvigorates a reactionary mythologising of itself as world saviour and policeman rarely seen since the height of the Cold War.

The contrast between chaos and stability and their causes is what the Three Body Problem story is largely about. Netflix writers would have demonstrated an advanced skillset if, in transposing it to the West, they’d looked at the era of chaos we’re entering. China is emerging from a dark place and heading towards the light, while we’ve abandoned the science and fact-based Age of Enlightenment and find ourselves burrowing deeper into a dark age.

Character assassination, poison, demonisation, dehumanisation and repetition of the Big Lie until it is accepted as Truth are our stock-in-trade along with military hardware and survival of the strongest. They could have taken a long, hard look at themselves and where we are if they’d examined that instead of delusional grandstanding as a 21st century John Wayne. More like a lung-wrecked Marlboro Man.

They might have transposed the story to the west, juxtaposing the outgoing balance of the post-war liberal order (for us, that is) with the rapidly descending chaotic era characterised by wars, social meltdown, abandonment of law and principles and lashings of speaking with forked tongue. An enlightened playwright might have seized the opportunity to flag up the reverse happening in the West in late stage capitalism as we are dragged from Stability to Chaos.

We even have our own real life bodies for which the three suns of the Trisolar system are the perfect metaphor: the USA, Europe and China; the actual Three Body Problem tipping us from a long period of post-war liberal order dominance into a multipolar rebalance.

This is likely to be a long and painful birth.

Our own Three Body Problem

Kindly allow me to finish by running with my astro-political metaphor.

As the US, the great star of the geopolitical firmament, declines and recedes, it disrupts the cosmic equilibrium of the post-war liberal order in the West. (Not so much equilibrium for the colonialised regions, unfortunately.) The US enters its supernova phase.

During the final period of stability, China saves the global economy from the declining America’s Great Financial Crash of 2008, releasing the big star’s last burst of energy which it proceeds to burn up at speed in a last ditch attempt to maintain its brilliance.

Meanwhile, Europe is drawing towards China under its huge gravitational pull of 1.4b human beings, vast productive economies of scale and rapidly advancing technology.

Lighter elements in the US whose outgoing energy counters the star’s own gravity, begin to burn out and fuse to create heavier elements. These deep state elements need to either drag Europe back or nix it all together.

They resort to all sorts of dirty tricks to promote Brexit, taking a huge chunk out of Europe as the UK jumps out of the Europe frying pan and into the US fire, adding its small mass to America. The additional gravitational attraction is just enough to pull Europe from its natural flow towards China and jerk it back towards the US, where the American red sun expansion fries parts of it to a crisp.

Burning through the last of its hydrogen and helium, the oversized star rapidly fuses into heavier and heavier elements — as Brexit shock leads to Trump leads to Biden in ever deteriorating states until its outgoing energy can no longer counter its own gravity.

It falls in on itself and bounces back off the tiny metallic core in a cosmic supernova, collapsing and exploding at the same time. Nothing is left except a tiny dwarf remnant of social breakdown, civil war, debt, hate and death spinning in the black depths of space.

Now, this is the plot we actually find ourselves in. I wonder if Cixin Liu ever stands at the lip of his Red Coast Base clifftop, staring into the setting sun, and asks if the sunset for humanity isn’t already here.

Anna Chen

Kicking the tyres of the culture: arts reviews and cultural critique by Anna Chen

Three-Body on Viki: all 30 episodes with subtitles

Three-Body on Prime: to buy

3 Body Problem: all 8 episodes on Netflix

Anna May Wong – Not Your China Doll book review

Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong (Faber) – by Katie Gee Salisbury

Book review by Anna Chen - First published 11 April 2024

A lively, well-written journey through Anna May Wong’s life and career, if light on the political landscape that shaped her.

Every generation needs its fix of America’s first Chinese screen legend. When my producer and I first proposed a programme about Anna May Wong to the BBC in 2005, it was turned down because “no-one’s heard of her”. Three years later they saw the light and commissioned us to make A Celestial Star in Piccadilly, for BBC Radio 4, broadcast in January 2009.

One chief source was Graham Russell Gao Hodges’ biography, The Laundryman’s Daughter (2004), plus Anthony B Chan’s Perpetually Cool (2007, the hardback now selling for £103!). I enjoyed interviewing Hodges for the programme as he was such an enthusiast eager to bring this cultural phenomenon out of the shadows and into public eye.

My own first awareness of Anna May Wong was as a little child when strange men would bark out of no-where, “Oi, you, Anna May Wong,” accompanied by a thigh-slapping chortle of familiarity.

Mystified, I’d wonder, “How did they know my name’s Anna?”

After all, I wasn’t named after no glittery Hollywood movie star. The origin of my name lay with Anna Louise Strong. She was the American journalist who got on so well with Mao when he was leading the most populous nation in the world out of colonial and feudal subjugation and into its modern era, despite an unfortunate detour by way of the calamitous Cultural Revolution as seen recently on Netflix — rolling eye emoji.

Feeling a mite resentful even as a kid of all the damagingly negative images of Chinese people — that’s when they were even recognised as existing — my first encounter with the screen legend was a TV screening one rainy Sunday of the sublime Shanghai Express.

Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich

Made in 1936 and set in the chaos of warlord-era China where life had little value, the action surrounding two “coasters” and their admirers takes place on the titular train.

I recognised the star: Marlene Dietrich, the teutonic blonde viz ze deep voice, who’d relocated from pre-Nazi Germany to become one of the biggest movie icons ever in the 1930s.

But who was this tall Chinese raven-haired beauty easily holding her own in balance with her like yin and yang on the silver screen? No submissive child-women with Minnie Mouse voices here. Anna May Wong and Dietrich out-baritoned each other the way drag queens can only dream of.

Katie Gee Salisbury explores the making of the movie, dispelling the gossip that Anna May might have had intimate relations with the well-known sybarite and bisexual. Despite the absence of polaroid evidence, I lean the other way … in the debate, that is.

They didn’t call it Hollywood Babylon for nothing. It was the raucous 1920s and 30s and the world was going to hell in a handcart. In Hollywood and its European environs, these were the new gods lusted after by all, libidos set to eleven, fuelled by booze and white powders. Everyone in the upper set was doing it with everything that moved. In aristo Britain, Margaret, Duchess of Argyle even kept her Grade A coke in a salt cellar on the dining room table. So do I believe they might have done it? You betcha! And so what?

Taste in boyfriends

Salisbury stacks up Anna May’s encounters with stars, adding an imaginative take to how those meetings might have gone. Anna May had proven to be a muse for a slew of male creatives. The lyrics of These Foolish Things were said to have been written about her by her one-time lover Eric Maschwitz. Like other paramours, he refused to leave his wife for Anna May, whose taste for men was not the wisest; although this may have had more to do with the dynamics and status of her ethnicity and the unenlightened times.

Director Tod Browning briefly became her boyfriend after casting her as a concubine in his 1923 movie, Drifting, when she was only 18. I’m surprised everyone keeps missing that he was also the director of the horror film, Freaks. “Gooba, gabba, gooba, gabba. One of us, one of us.”

And Anna May was the most beautiful freak of them all.

Politics as backdrop

We know German philosopher Walter Benjamin had a crush on her from his writings about her. I wasn’t sure how much of the detail in the book was research or written with an eye on the screenplay. In classic biopic form, we get a long paragraph of how, sitting on a sofa at a swanky dinner party with him, she let down her hair. Was it a long up-do or a bob?

We are told: “As Anna May loosened her hair with her immaculately manicured fingers, stroking and restyling the fringe across her forehead, Benjamin no doubt caught a thrill.” Yet nothing materialises about Benjamin’s tragic end in suicide on the run from Nazis on the France Spain border in 1940.

As with the movie Shanghai Express, politics provide a backdrop against which personal dramas unfold, not the circumstances out of which character and deeper meanings are forged. At times, this gives Anna May’s story an uncanny valley soap-opera feel.

Chances are missed. Madam Chiang Kai-shek, a political powerhouse on the world stage in her own right, is mentioned only once as thanking Anna May by cablegram for her fundraising efforts for China against Japanese occupation. But never is the upper-crust Soong sister’s deep disdain for the declassé actress Wong discussed. Considering that she was the other most famous Chinese woman of the era — later wooed by David Selznick and the Hollywood establishment for “China”, the documentary (eventually dropped) — some investigation and comparison might have raised the game.

Patent king Thomas Edison and Hollywood

Salisbury gives the reason for Hollywood flourishing in Los Angeles as the lovely weather. You might as well listen to Rick (Humphrey Bogart) telling the Nazis that he went to Casablanca for the waters. That Hollywood was founded on the Pacific coast was an accident of sanctuary and escape from patent holder Thomas Edison’s hoodlums, both legal and illegal, who upheld his movie monopoly. Anyone challenging his stranglehold on cinematic technology in sound and vision was roughed up by mobsters and judges.

Budding filmmakers were forced to flee as far away as they could scarper from Edison’s turf on the East coast, to an exotic location whose transit was made easier with the transcontinental railroad all the way out to California. And so the development of technology shapes the culture and the politics out of the ecoomic base, as I am fond of reminding anyone who’ll listen.

Thus California was populated by misfits and outlaws, the perfect milieu for the fledgling cinema industry and one that would be a more natural fit for an outsider like Anna than the stiff, sewn up East coast.

Plus it did have that perfect weather.

The Good Earth

There’s an impressive amount of research and details in the book that tell a good yarn. Written through the lens of a Chinese American woman, the emphasis on identity politics often hits the mark.

Salisbury drily describes the making of MGM blockbuster The Good Earth with Swedish actress Luise Rainer in the lead role in Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about Chinese peasants. Did Rainer devote months to studying for the role? “No,” she answered, “I depend upon my own imagination. Somehow instinctively I assume the right attitude.”

Not unlike Marie Antoinette playing at shepherdess.

And the “right attitude,” of course, was a gobsmacking conformity to the American dream, not the concrete reality of people’s lives, a state of affairs in evidence in the representation of China today.

Salisbury brings Anna May’s story up to date in the epilogue with the rejection of yellowface and progress made in casting Asian actors.

Cultural representation and changing geopolitical agendas

However, in recent years the game has changed. A fundamental manipulation from the top of how China and Chinese are perceived, aided by President Joe Biden’s $500m a year anti-China propaganda bounty on top of Donald Trump’s covert CIA operation devoted to China’s character assassination from 2019, has resulted in the very real tragedy of race hysteria that’s seen Asian women attacked and murdered.

How a book about the Mitochondrial Eve of the Chinese diaspora can be produced that ignores the gigantic elephant perched on the coffee table and fails to explore how cultural representation has deeper ramifications in geopolitical agendas is a disappointment.

On a side-note, we might have reached peak AMW with the issuance of the AMW quarter, now mysteriously withdrawn in the run-up to war with her race. My friend Jack has been on the look-out for one for me since the start and there are none to be had for love nor money. Makes no cents.

Anna May Wong: A Celestial Star in Piccadilly: Anna Chen writes and presents a profile of Hollywood’s first geopolitical superstar on BBC Radio4, 2009

The Good Earth: review of MGM’s blockbuster movie of Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer Prize novel, and how Anna May Wong was denied the role of her career

Yellowface and the erasure of a race

Video: Anna May Wong Must Die! Anna Chen presents extracts (2009)

Friday 15 March 2024

View from the Edge Bulletin 2: Margate Grains of Sand

First published at Anna's new website: ANNA CHEN

Previously in View from the Edge … When David Bowie died in 2016 he took all the cosmic glue with him. Some suspect that we’ve all been trapped in a science fiction writer’s coma dream ever since. Or was there an earlier rip in the multiverse?

EDGE BULLETIN 1: Dateline 20 February 2024

By Anna Chen

Margate Grains of Sand

I nearly died in Margate when I was six. It was my own fault. I’d hitched a ride on another girl’s inflatable oval ring which she was paddling into the deep end of the holiday resort’s ancient open-air bathing pool. Set deep into the beach, the rectangle of seaweed-covered rocks filled with grey seawater with each high tide. It felt like it had been there forever: a seaside Stonehenge harnessing the elements.

Somewhere around the middle of the pool, I lost my balance and fell in. A non-swimmer who could barely doggy-paddle, I slipped into the murky water with hardly a splash. Each of the three times I surfaced to gulp air, all I glimpsed were a few shuttered snapshots. Strands of white cloud against the watery sky, the pool’s green-black walls, the girl’s rictus of laughter.

I know how many times it was because I counted. Even at that young age I knew you only had three goes and then you were gone.

Each time I rose, I threw my spindly arm over the ring long enough to take a quick, shallow breath. And each time I slipped from the wet plastic, my own meagre body weight dragging me down.

The fourth time I was desperate. It was, after all, my first-ever race against death. Eye-level with the horizontal seam running along the outside of the inflatable, I noticed the half inch of material sticking out all round. Too small for a fist to grab (and I tried), it was, however, with lightning-fast fine-tuning of motor skills, wide enough for a child’s nimble little fingers to pinch and provide enough buoyancy for a proper breath, if not for a scream.

I managed short, slippery grips while the girl paddled her inflatable into the deep end towards some mysterious purpose from which nothing could distract her. My own objective was to reach the wall and safety before my fingers weakened.

Finally, a few feet away, I let go and lurched towards it, abandoning the sanctuary of the half-inch seam. I grabbed at it only to find a fistful of seaweed slipping through my fingers. Finding no purchase, I slid down a sheer wall of slime, enveloped in weedy fronds. Exhaustion eventually overcame buoyancy. I finally gave up the struggle and accepted my fate.

As I hung suspended in time, in a distantly familiar environment only six years passing, I watched the light playing through the water. I felt completely calm, even peaceful, my only anxiety being that my mother was going to be very angry when she found out. Especially as she’d told me explicitly not to go near the pool which she’d correctly numbered as an unguarded death-trap. I started to breathe in water. It didn’t hurt. I felt no fear. It was almost beautiful. I’d surrendered completely.

It seemed an age but must have only been a few moments before a hand roughly grasped the back of my neck and hauled me out.

I gagged and spluttered to my feet, head pounding, surrounded by a small crowd on Margate sands. Bedraggled and quite embarrassed, I was suddenly overcome by a wave of dread of my mum’s fury, a dread amplified by an outraged chorus of “where’s the mother?” If the pool hadn’t killed me, my mother might well finish the job. What a choice — my own Scylla and Charybdis.

I sometimes wonder if I did die that day and everything since then in this world has been the imaginings of a six-year-old in her last moments. An eternity in the grains of sand on which I stumbled back to our basement holiday rooms in the down-at-heel Royal Crescent.

Because what I’m watching in this “Now” is what a child might construct had she missed her expected life trajectory. If she’d found herself banished to an unrealised, other-worldly plane in which she was left extrapolating a path for humanity from the little experience she’d picked up in her short life, this might very well be it.

She might well be regaining consciousness in a shrieking nosedive into a multiverse gone wrong as capitalism crashes to its flaming end, her widening eyes pulling focus all the way.

Plunging into the snarling instant gratification of immediate primal needs in the most advanced system on the planet, explained by a figure she’d invented called Karl Marx, in a cycle of events to which only someone severely damaged would willingly submit, she might well ask what the hell happened and how do I get out of this.

Did everything change at the Mother Portal? Did I, grasping at seaweed and straws, rename it the Ma Gate in my final moments? Does it really have a revivification chamber called Dreamland?

To be continued ….

Edge Bulletin 2 – Logged 20 February 2024 by Anna Chen

View from the Edge Bulletin 1: The science fiction writer's coma dream

Friday 23 February 2024

View from the Edge Bulletin 1: Coma Dream

First published at Anna's new website: ANNA CHEN

EDGE BULLETIN 1: Dateline 18 June 2023

By Anna Chen

The science fiction writer’s coma dream

For the longest time it felt like we were trapped in a science fiction writer’s coma dream and nobody could wake him up. We sensed something shifting underfoot, tiny spider-web cracks at first, then the juddering tectonic shift and the beginnings of a rip in the universe. Or was it just the post-war liberal order coming to an end as the capitalist cycle neared completion with all the goodness finally sucked out and nothing more left to give?

David Bowie left us in January 2016, taking all the cosmic glue with him. He’d given us five years. That would take us to 2021. How much worse could it get?

First the empathy went. Then the critical thinking. A cloud of amnesia floated like swarming locusts over the field of human view, before settling invisibly.

We were the last remnants of a better time, a higher collective consciousness when, despite the flaws and age-old crimes, mostly everything was on an upward trajectory. Humankind flowing towards the Great Attractor; full potential, us at our best.

Never before had the mass of any population enjoyed the advantages of princes. Time to spend toiling less in fields and factories and more on the things of wonder and beauty. We enjoyed poetry, philosophy, science, music. We even made it ourselves, no longer solely passive consumers of the crumbs thrown our way, but building things and thinking new possibilities into existence.

Then the storm began to gather.

Someone wanted it all back. A slow, incessant, silent assassin killing off what generations had built up in 400 years of Enlightenment.

They didn’t have to burn books. They just made sure fewer and fewer of us read them.

Giant conglomerates undercut the bookstores while we were busy amusing ourselves to death. You saw them die off in the towns, those peculiar little caches of humanity’s knowledge. It was the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, this time in slomo. A process of attrition rather than all-out war, it crept up on us. We were the frogs being boiled slowly and served up with garlic sauce.

This one was digging out the roots of our perception. We’d have stuck our fists in the dyke to plug the outpouring, but where was the wall? Where were the cracks? What was the flow and how could we physically stop it?

Thinking it wasn’t enough. The resistance stayed in the heads of the few who saw it but we couldn’t yank it out into the concrete world where the damage was being done, foundations ripped up.

All the small, delicate dendritic connections began to wither and erode as our neurotransmitters dried up. The finest filaments, the sprigs and twiglets at the furthest ends, turned brittle and crumbled, blowing away like ash.

Then the larger twigs. Then along the stems, working its way down the branches until the bough broke and all we had left was brainstem. The world perceived without nuance; crude clashing opposites, grunts and cliches, pleasure and pain without the pleasure, ones and zeros.

It wore down to basic sex drives and fury: fight, flee or fuck. Then even that failed as our libido was throttled.

The television screen that had once been a window into the wider world, seducing us by showing us experiences we were unlikely to have ourselves, that had laid out vicarious pleasures like lacy underwear and chocolates on silk pillows, was now our jailor.

Dramas that drew you into the complex curlicues of thought, that surprised and shed light, now reduced humans to hysterics, never alive unless confronted by death.

The Case for the Prosecution that had once been balanced by a robust Case for the Defence in a society where fair play was the purported pinnacle of civilised existence now stood thuggish and triumphant like a roaring champ over the lifeless body of its opponent. No longer thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but one big tough-guy imposition of narrative smashing your head like a sledgehammer crushes a nut.

With nothing feeding us and no other coordinates directing us to a distanced perspective, everything collapsed into a single plane of grey mush.

Might was right.

Some had done hallucinogenic altered states drugs in their youth and knew the enhanced colours, the deep focus untangling. Others had loved beyond themselves and accessed the divine that way.

This was the opposite. A smashing together of plane after plane after plane, like the pancaking floors of the Twin Towers, into a single dimensional watery-grey contrast-free haze, like the morning after the death of the universe.

Where was up? Which way was down? We only moved when prodded with a big stick stimulus, tasered by horror. We weren’t even lab rats in a maze any more. We were amoeba cells on the petri dish of some mad scientist who thought there were too many of us anyway.

In the time we had left, we noticed few written items online carried dates any more, collapsing chronology and making orientation near impossible. It was hard to tell when something was written, when that idea was born, or what its genesis might have been. How did it slot into the timeline? Meta led the metaverse attempt to yank us out of reality and into their Matrix knock-off. An anaesthetising, soporific tranquiliser in a little headset.

When that failed, they gave us Artificial Intelligence that wasn’t very intelligent after all. More a big fancy word-processor relieving us of the need to experience and have the thoughts ourselves in the way your subconscious once processed all your experiences, gave them shape and made sense of them. Or not.

It was a good party trick, but the magicians never truly produced the rabbit, only a simulacrum of one.

That’s what we were to them, ones and zeros being programmed, our information stripped from us to create the world for the next pliant generation. They wanted newborns no longer sucking at the teat of the TV screen, or the iPad or the mobile phone but shrouded, cocooned, all stimulus inserted via goggles.

So what was to be done?

It was simple, really. All I had to do was complete three missions in the 21st century.

1) Make sure the left didn’t bury the anti-Iraq War campaign, one of the first countries in the long line of boxes being ticked off, the way they’d done with all the others. As long as it didn’t end up as another forgotten walk in the park, we might stand a chance. Check.

2) Make visible the invisible and humanise the Chinese in the culture, on the BBC and in the rest of the media. Usher them out of the ghetto, where they were sitting ducks, before the war started in earnest. Nice try.

3) Stop World War 3. Still working on it.

Edge Bulletin 1 – Logged 18 June 2023

More at Anna Chen's website