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School of Diplomacy and International Relations

Making First Contact: Are We Bugs? The Geopolitics of Netflix's '3 Body Problem'

Brendan ValerianoProfessor Brandon Valeriano, Ph.D., assistant professor, School of Diplomacy and International Relations, shared his analysis of the Netflix pop culture phenomenon "3 Body Problem" with the influential international digital site, The Diplomat. The article considers the context of first contact, geopolitics, China and soft power. An expert on popular culture and international soft power, Valeriano has researched sports, video games, K-Pop, Taylor Swift’s influence on the youth vote and most recently, the evolution of the popular Chinese science fiction trilogy, Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth's Past, into the new hit science fiction television series. The article is available here.

Since its launch in 2002, The Diplomat has provided quality analysis and commentary to policymakers and academics on geo-political trends throughout the Asia-Pacific, defense and intelligence, the environment, human security and development as well as the arts, social trends and popular culture. In this commentary, Valeriano discusses whether it matters who speaks for humanity in a first-contact extraterrestrial situation. Series themes look at how our choices effect our surroundings, from how we harm our environment to how we are perceived by others. The series can provide a lens to view how any civilization’s choices will impact on how it is seen in the universe and in our own global landscape. 

Valeriano reflects on humanity’s morality and how we will respond to survive.  

The San-Ti view humans as bugs, and are indignant at humanity’s warlike nature. Is there anything to save? At what cost? While the San-Ti fear our rapid jumps in technology, they also want to make humanity fear the Universe since human hubris poses a threat to any civilization Earth might contact. Who is really the hunted and who will be the hunters in the dark forest?  

To gain the upper hand, humanity must establish deterrence and prevent an alien attack. As an inferior civilization, is deterrence even possible? Modern geopolitics is largely founded on deterrence, nuclear deterrence specifically, yet the reality is that deterrence has  never really been tested. Perceptions matter, might humanity have an advantage in our capacity to lie and deceive? These questions guide much of the 3 Body Problem series.  

Valeriano explores a pessimistic vision of science fiction, putting it in our own timeline. 

He shares, "We can now reproduce the vocalizations of sperm whales. Eventually, with advanced artificial intelligence we will be able to understand the language of sperm whales. What else will we come to understand?," adding, "Are our ships and pipelines wiping out their civilization? Instead of a whale fin salute of hello, we might instead get a middle flipper due to all the destruction humanity is causing. Is this how the Universe might eventually react to humanity?"

Valeriano concludes:

"I look forward to the Netflix series continuing. I am excited to compare the Netflix version to the longer Chinese-produced version. But mostly, I am excited for humanity to confront a pessimistic view of first contact and survival. After COVID and the many errors of the last few centuries, it is not at all clear that we have anything to offer the Universe. Are we bugs, insignificant, or is humanity a force for good? These questions should trouble us all." 

In addition to his love for popular culture and soft power, Valeriano’s research includes emergent technology, cyber security and international conflict. He has given testimony to the U.S. Senate and the United Kingdom and Canadian Parliaments. He is the co-author with Benjamin Jensen and Ryan C. Maness,of Cyber Strategy: The Evolving Character of Cyber Power and Coercion, published by Oxford University Press. He serves as area editor for International Relations and Strategy for the Journal of Cybersecurity and a General Editor for the Oxford University Press Book Series on Disruptive Technology and International Security.  

View the coverage: "Are We Bugs? The Geopolitics of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem."

Categories: Arts and Culture, Nation and World