Analyzing 3 Body Problem’s Deeper Symbolism & The Ending

What is the deeper symbolism of Netflix’s new mega-hit adaptation, 3 Body Problem? The book on which the show is based is famous for leaning hard into the science aspect of sci-fi, creating an engaging but incredibly dense work. The Netflix series streamlines some of the story’s more confusing aspects, but it still takes us on a wild ride and leaves us with more questions than answers.

“And when you know your civilization is doomed, what is the solution?”

The show uses a lot of symbolism to help get across its major themes, and unpacking these can help us understand the story on a deeper level. So let’s break down some of the show’s most important symbols to get a better grasp of what the story is really trying to tell us.

“Here again we are reminded that in nature, nothing exists alone.”


Virtual Reality

Virtual reality has become a more ever present part of our own world, so it’s not surprising to see it pop up in science fiction in a big way – but the VR these characters experience is very different from anything we have access to. Instead of being stuck as legless, plastic-y blobs, these characters are brought into a high definition, ultra-realistic recreation of the world. While in the book only one character enters the VR space, in the show multiple characters are drawn into the experience (we’ll get into why in a moment.) The “game” seems at first to be about trying to figure out a way to help humanity survive various threats, but we come to realize that these aren’t humans at all. The game was actually created by an alien life form as a way to explain their story to humans to get us to help them. The characters, namely Jin, must figure out solutions level after level, as they get pulled deeper into the mystery. The aliens, known as San-Ti, hope to use humanity’s problem solving skills to save them from a dire fate.

“The count said survival is everything. That’s the object of the game: to help them survive.”

While the game obviously has the literal parallels to the direct dangers to their existence the San-Ti are facing, it also serves as a larger metaphor for the way humans must look into our past to save our own futures. As technology races forward, it can be easy to have blinders to previous lessons learned, but ignoring the past due to one’s own hubris can have disastrous results. And the VR headsets also represent how, regardless what world we might be experiencing, at the end of the day we have to make the decisions for ourselves. As series co-creator David Benioff told Netflix, “When you put on the helmet, it’s mirrored, so the last thing you would see are your own eyes looking back at you.” But they also show us how easy it is to get sucked into another world, and give yourself over to the control of another.

“The stars, Auggie’s countdown, this video game: They’re all virtual realities, indistinguishable from actual reality.”

In the same way that social media companies are able to track us and our data when we use their sites, the San Ti have been able to use their VR headsets to mine information from the humans playing to figure out how to pull them in even deeper.

“While you’re playing the game, someone at the other end is playing you. It’s a recruitment tool. They’re going after our best and brightest.”

The Three Body Problem

Then there’s that titular issue, the ‘three body problem’ – an actual theoretical problem that arises in physics that basically boils down to “two bodies are stable and chill, three bodies lead to chaos at random.” This is a literal problem for the San Ti – their world is trapped in the orbit of three suns, leading to constant havoc. They only have so long to build up their civilizations before one or more of the suns affects the climate (and gravity and just about everything else) in such a major way that everything is destroyed and must be rebuilt anew. This is the issue that the San Ti have sought the human’s help with.

These suns also serve as an important symbol for the chaos and destruction that can come from too much unrestrained power. Our sun provides us with everything that makes life possible, and the San Ti’s three suns do the same – but they also are the source of great suffering because they are so incredibly overpowered and out of control. The same things that give us power are often also what sow the seeds of our destruction if we’re not careful. There is also the larger metaphor of three bodies creating chaos, that is the humans, technology, and the aliens. Any two of these bodies could likely go on in relative stability – either group and their technology advancing independently, or both on their own without their immense technological capabilities. But when all three of these things are combined, the universe is thrown off balance and chaos ensues.

Fairy Tales

It might, at first, seem funny to imagine fairy tales would feature heavily in such a hard-science sci-fi work – but it actually makes a lot of sense. Fairy tales are the way we break down the most complex nuances of humanity to help small children begin to understand the world and people around them. Human nature can often seem inscrutable, but these stories that simply lay out their beats and unpack the reasoning behind their characters’ choices helps to make these various facets of humanity, good and bad, easier to understand. It follows that, if we were to want to try to relay these concepts to other life forms, fairy tales might come in handy. And this is just what Evans tries to do, to explain the workings of the human mind through some of our most beloved children’s stories. This backfires, however, when a story lays bare the duplicity in human nature. Evans tries to explain that it’s just part of who we are – everyone lies sometimes. But the San Ti can’t handle this – they don’t understand how humans could possibly be good and lie, and so come to the conclusion that we are all bad.

“So this story is a lie about a liar? We think we understand now.”

After decades of working together, the San Ti go radio silent. It may seem a little over the top, but thinking you know someone well only to find out that they have a very different side that could be more dangerous to you than you had ever imagined is something we regular humans have to worry about, too.

The Shared Proton & desire for connection

For as long as humans have looked to the stars, we’ve wondered who, or what, else is out there. Our innate desire to seek out connection is part of our everyday lives within society – sometimes leading to strife, and other times to wonderful relationships. As we seek out contact with other worlds, we have to contend with the fear of the worst while also hoping for the best.

“Communication with whom?” “With whomever is out there.”

The first contact with an alien race comes when Ye follows through with her idea to amplify a message by using the sun and an effect similar to gravitational lensing. This first interaction isn’t particularly hopeful.

“If you respond, we will come. Your world will be conquered.”

But Ye doesn’t have any hope for the world as it’s being run by humans, either, and so summons these intergalactic strangers.

“Come. We cannot save ourselves. I will help you conquer this world.”

She is excited by the prospect of a group more powerful and intelligent coming in and fixing all of the ills of our world – and eventually we learn that the San Ti were enthusiastic about making this connection as well. Though Ye was unable to respond for years, the San Ti continued to send messages to her. Once she reconnects with Evans, she’s finally able to receive all of them and becomes even more steadfast in her journey to bring the San Ti to Earth. When so many things are going wrong, and the world seems to be filled with so much cruelty, it’s easy to imagine that some outside force would be better equipped to come in and solve all of these problems for us. But as everyone soon learns, things aren’t that simple.

“It’s controlling all sensory inputs and outputs, everything that goes into your brain, everything that goes out.”

The San Ti created shared protons which, through quantum entanglement, instantly connect their world and ours even though they are lightyears apart. But not only that – the San Ti also harnessed the power of multidimensional unfolding to essentially turn the shared protons into mega-computers that could encase the entire Earth, giving the San Ti not only the power to watch over and communicate with humans but also to control everything that they see. When the San Ti turn on humans, it quickly becomes clear why giving over so much power to this unknown entity wasn’t such a great idea.

“We are everywhere. Anywhere. Whenever we want. Always watching. Learning all your secrets. Uncovering your lies. And we will teach you how to fear again.”

The Looming Threat

Approaching, seeming unavoidable dangers lurking off in the future are a running theme throughout the story. For the San Ti, their first concern is the chaos of their three suns coming to wipe out their civilization yet again. But after learning more about humans, they gain a new fear: that we will take them out instead. The first problem sent them looking into the cosmos for help, but the second is what sent them on a warpath to Earth. And since we are now a future threat to them – they realize that due to our rate of technological advancement, we’ll likely have surpassed their capabilities by the time they’re able to complete the centuries long journey to us – they feel the need to do what they can to slow us down, namely by attempting to halt our scientific progress.

“According to the experiments, all of our theories are wrong. All of the physics of the past 60 years is wrong.”

They seek to foil our progress by filling our brightest scientists with the fear of an unavoidable, dark future. There are a rash of scientists taking their own lives because the San Ti have given them countdowns to when they have to stop their work or see the world end – with one scientist so desperate not to see this that he gouges out his own eyes. Auggie, too, sees a countdown – a countdown that is confirmed to not just be a trick her mind is playing when the entire universe winks the timecode back to her.

But the biggest looming threat is in fact man’s inhumanity to man. Existential dread about the horrors of our world and the even worse possibilities that could be to come is what kicks off the cosmic connection in the first place. And we can see how this fear is used to justify horrifying things in the name of the greater good when Auggie is convinced to use her nanofiber technology to destroy the Judgment Day ship – and everyone on board – to enable the “good guys” to gain access to the logs of the communication with the San Ti. But as much as humans are willing to use this fear as justification to do whatever it takes to ‘save ourselves’, we also see how fear of being wrong, or acting on the wrong threat, can cause people to put off action until it’s too late. The San Ti won’t arrive for 400 years, leading many to wonder why they should worry about it when they and everyone they love will be long gone by then. But others feel that they owe it to future humans to start fighting now.

“You said they weren’t coming for over 400 years, so how do you know they’re gonna be nice? Usually when people with more advanced technology encounter people with more primitive technology, it doesn’t work out well for the primitives.”

This question of if we can afford to put off dealing with a coming problem is explained using a real example from our world. Conservationist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is an environmental science book published in 1962 about the dangers of pesticides and the damage they were wreaking on the Earth. Though her work received a lot of pushback upon release, it also opened many people’s eyes to this growing problem – leading to a successful campaign to ban the use of DDT in the US and inspiring many of the policies set by the early Environmental Protection Agency.

While we often imagine that the threat of something bad happening is what pushes humans towards change, in reality it often seems to require something bad already happening followed by threats of even worse things to come to really spur people into action.

The Power of the Collective

An underlying theme of the story is the power of the collective.

“They’ve lived on in you. If you survive, they’ve survived.”

Wang from the book is split into five different characters to help tell a more broad story but also to help highlight this idea. Each of the five main characters is incredibly bright on their own, but they must work together to solve the biggest problems – and sometimes even that isn’t enough to fix things. But we also see how a group mindset can be used for nefarious purposes right from the start, as the story opens with a professor – who we learn is Ye’s father – being murdered during the Cultural Revolution for teaching counterrevolutionary material. Every choice humans make – alone or as a group – has the potential to bring about great advancement or great suffering, and sometimes when getting swept up in a group movement it can be difficult to tell which way things are really going. This is why it’s so important to remember the issues of our past, and the harm we’ve created, so that we don’t repeat history.

We’re also presented with an opposing concept at the end of season one with the introduction of the Wallfacers – people who must work alone, within the confines of their own minds, to try to solve the world’s problems. But being cut off from the rest of humanity, unable to work through their plans with others, isn’t likely to birth a solution. Because as the show continually reminds us, what makes humanity so resilient is our ability to work together to survive. It is, in fact, this very resilience that the San Ti at first sought out and now hope to extinguish – our ability to adapt and overcome and endure. And if humanity has any hope of making it through the coming threat of the San Ti, it’s this communal power that they’ll need to lean into.

“We’re slow, we’re dumb, and we die easy. “We’re bugs.”

“People hate bugs, been trying to get rid of them forever. Look around, they’re not going anywhere.”