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Avatar: Film-making and Human Destiny

by Larry Klaes

Judging by the abundant reaction to Larry Klaes’ recent article on James Cameron’s Avatar — and by the continuing commentary in society at large — Larry seems to be vindicated when he says the film has become a focal point of discussion for many in the general public. Having engaged in the lively debate in these pages, Larry now wraps up our Avatar coverage with a look at the film’s message and its ramifications, along with comments on its use of science.

To some the new film Avatar may seem like just another science fiction action-adventure flick designed to show off some new special effects while raking in the money for Hollywood and giving audiences some feel-good messages in the process. In Avatar’s most essential sense, this is true. At their core, all films are about giving certain people jobs and making a profit through the entertainment of the masses.

However, there are deeper messages to be found in Avatar, some of which the makers of this film and its intended audience may not appreciate in full, nor their potential consequences that may reach far beyond a mere night at the movies. In fact, I would go so far to say that the overriding message in Avatar might even threaten the ultimate goals of groups like Tau Zero and Project Icarus if left unchallenged and unanswered.

Hollywood’s Reach

It may appear to be a bit much to assume that one film could influence the destiny of humanity, but Avatar has the advertising publicity befitting a film that cost approximately $237 million to make, along with its new filming and presentation techniques which have already established its status in cinematic history. In addition to all this, producer James Cameron says he plans to make two more Avatar films if this first one is financially successful, which it seems well on its way to becoming. Avatar’s presence in the public mind and in our popular culture is ensured for decades.

As I said in my previous article on Avatar, a fair percentage of the people who see this film will get their main ‘education’ on the various themes presented to them by Avatar itself. Now these same people may have seen the occasional news blurb on one of the subjects, but they probably tend not to read science books and periodicals about them. Sadly this is the state of many people in our society, even the otherwise educated ones. Avatar will be giving them one side of a complex theme that will one day become one version of reality for our descendants, a reality that is now taking shape in our present culture.

Before I become fully involved in the main focus of this piece, allow me to address a few more items about Avatar, thanks in part to the comments and information pointers on my previous Avatar articles in Centauri Dreams. Regarding earlier cinematic efforts that have plots and ideas similar to Avatar, I add to this list one animated feature titled Battle for Terra, which first appeared in Canada in 2007 and arrived (with relatively little fanfare) in the United States two years later.

Avatar in Cinematic Context

Battle for Terra involves the surviving remnants of the human race seeking a new home in the galaxy after they managed to destroy Earth and its neighboring colonies in a self-inflicted interplanetary war. They come across an alien world named Terra where the ranking native intelligence lives in peace and harmony with each other and the ecology of their planet. Some humans want to work out a mutual agreement with the natives to live among them, while the military elements want to skip past any diplomacy and simply take over the planet. The two main characters in Battle for Terra are a human male fighter pilot and native female whose cooperative efforts may hold the key to saving both species and the planet.

Perhaps it is true that there are only so many story plots in existence. Or perhaps it is also true that Hollywood has a rather limited repertoire of ideas when it comes to science fiction stories. There have also been claims that certain elements in Avatar come from a science fiction story written in 1957 by author Poul Anderson titled “Call Me Joe.” This story involves a physically handicapped human scientist who explores the planet Jupiter (as that world was envisioned at the time) by placing his mind in the body of a native creature not altogether different from the Na’vi in Avatar. Eventually the scientist abandons his human body and fully becomes the Jovian being.

In any event, Cameron has learned his lesson in regards to credit from the events surrounding his 1984 film, The Terminator. After Cameron publicly stated that he got his ideas for The Terminator from two 1960s television stories by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, he was subsequently sued when the producer initially failed to give Ellison screen credit on the film. This time around, Cameron has declared that Avatar’s elements come from “every single science fiction book I read as a kid,” thus covering all his bases.

The Problem of Polyphemus

One staple of the science fiction genre where Cameron was clearly influenced from his youth in making Avatar is the giant planet and retinue of moons seen hovering in the sky of the world essential to the plot. While having such worlds hanging prominently in an alien sky is indeed a very cool thing to see, it does not necessarily follow that having such a sight would be necessarily safe for any living beings on the main moon, assuming they could even exist at all with such massive nearby celestial neighbors. The chances for such a place having major tectonic upheavals, numerous erupting volcanoes, and lakes of molten lava are quite high, taking Jupiter’s moon Io as a prime and real example.

Other hazards to be encountered from living on a moon so close to a Jovian type planet as Pandora does to Polyphemus would include major amounts of radiation from the Jovian world, assuming Polyphemus has radiation belts as big and as nasty as the ones surrounding Jupiter and Saturn in our Sol system do. The first probe to orbit Jupiter, appropriately named Galileo, was frequently affected by all the intense radiation it had to fly through on a regular basis, constantly going into safe mode at critical moments during its mission. Galileo might still be operating in Jovian orbit to this very day had it not been for all that collective radiation.

With Jupiter, you have to move all the way to the moon Callisto to get outside the range of that planet’s radiation belts, and by then Jupiter, while still being pretty impressive to look at in the heavens compared to, say, our Moon, is nowhere near as big as Polyphemus is in Pandora’s skies.

Another Pandoran space hazard to contemplate is a ring system. Now while Polyphemus did not appear to have such a collection of debris around its equator on the level of Saturn (now there’s another staple of science fiction visuals, a planet with rings) from the relatively brief and distant glimpses we were given, every Jovian type world in our Sol system has a system of rings, though some like Jupiter’s are faint and thin compared to Saturn’s. So assuming Polyphemus and many other such massive globes have some kind of flat plane of debris, then add in Pandora’s proximity to its mother world, there should be a fair number of debris hits from the rings.

Even if the moon’s atmosphere keeps out all but the largest objects, a world like Polyphemus will also attract many comets, planetoids, and meteoroids just as Jupiter does (the impressive breakup and smashup of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into the Jovian atmosphere in 1994 is a prime case in point). It is hardly unreasonable to imagine that Pandora and its fellow moons have been struck by objects pulled in from deep space by Polyphemus’ massive bulk more than a few times in their history. Some of those impacting bodies were probably big enough to radically affect any past life on Pandora, just as the dinosaurs on Earth disappeared after a five-mile wide planetoid or comet hit our world 65 million years ago.

On Setting and Culture

I also have to wonder if massive, looming Polyphemus also does the Na’vi a disservice in terms of not only blocking much of the Pandoran sky from the natives with its apparent size but also the serious amounts of natural light pollution it spreads across the heavens of that moon and its neighbors. Observe how many stars are washed out on an otherwise clear night with a full phase Moon in Earth’s skies and now imagine our satellite replaced with a world that takes up half the heavens! I chalk this up as another reason why the Na’vi (or at least the Omaticaya tribe who our main human character interacts with the most) don’t seem terribly interested in astronomy, at least given the amounts we were shown of their culture in the film.

One could argue that they are alien beings who evolved on a different world, but considering how similar they seem to have developed otherwise to aboriginal humans on Earth, I find it odd that they would ignore what so many other cultures all across Earth for millennia have focused on with more intensity than our current artificially light polluted society. At the least one might think that the presence of a giant planet with a big “eye” (several times we saw a giant hurricane-style storm on Polyphemus very similar to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter) and at least three nearby big moons would have developed some kind of interest and/or worship among the Na’vi.

What this really says to me is that Polyphemus was put there (or Pandora put in its realm) to look really cool aesthetically to audiences and physics be darned with what that giant planet would really do to a moon so close to it. It would have been better for the logical existence of life on Pandora if that world had been made a separate Earth-type planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A. Besides, there do not seem to be any Jovian-type worlds in the real Alpha Centauri star system (astronomers have looked and they would have been found by now), but there is still a chance for much smaller planets around our nearest stellar neighbors. Otherwise, though, Pandora is a fantasy place existing strictly in the minds of its creators.

Starship Design

Thanks to the Pandorapedia and comments on my earlier Avatar articles in Centauri Dreams, I was able to learn quite a bit more about the starship seen briefly at the start of the film. It turns out I was correct that the ship, named the ISV Venture Star (you can see the name on its hull), appears to be based on a realistic starship design, as opposed to most science fiction starships which rely on hyperspace bypasses and magical crystals to channel their energy from. They do use instantaneous communication across the light years with quantum entanglement (we will see how that ever works out). The Avatar starship concept comes from an antimatter starship design by Charles Pellegrino and James Powell called a Valkyrie, which you can read a fair bit about here.

That’s refreshing, at least. It is ironic, though, that a ship which had so little screen time has been given so much realistic detail, more so than the Polyphemus system and the biology of Pandora if you really think about it (as of this writing, there is no entry on Pandora itself). Ignoring for one moment whether complex life could exist on Pandora at all given its situation as just described, note how similar the creatures and intelligent beings on that moon are to Earth life. The Pandoran life forms really weren’t all that imaginative. Maybe all Earth-type worlds evolve similar types of beings, but then why bother to have Avatar take place 4.3 light years from here, other than to make comments on human society without offending certain groups, of course.

Let’s Go Camping – Forever!

Although we never really see human civilization on Earth in the year 2154 as imagined in Avatar, we are told that the place has become rather rundown, with not much green left (shades of Silent Running), lots of skirmishes all over the globe (that is how our Marine hero, Jake Sully, ended up in a wheelchair), and most everything is run by a company (shades of Rollerball and Robocop) called the Resources Development Administration, or RDA (about as bland a corporate name as one can get). Crime rates have probably gone up (Jake Sully’s twin brother was murdered by a thief, which is why he was sent to Pandora to replace his scientist sibling) and resources have certainly dwindled, which is why the RDA has gone to all the bother and expense of traveling over 25 trillion miles across the Milky Way galaxy to set up a colony and research facility (but in fact more like a military base) on an alien moon to mine a mineral called unobtanium to supply energy for human society back on Earth.

In a previous Avatar article I discussed why it seems so foolish that a society which has space travel would need to go all the way to another solar system, even the nearest one, to mine resources just for civilization on Earth. There should be colonies on worlds in our Sol system, especially on various planetoids, which have their own societies and access to lots of untapped resources. Clearly the filmmakers wanted and needed some kind of conflict with beings roughly equal in intelligence to humans, and since they at least knew no other intelligences exist in our Sol system (no living native ones anyway), they looked into the galaxy, where there are still so many unknowns that one can still create their own mythos of living worlds and feel safe from most ridicule (Venus and Mars used to serve this role until the first few decades of the Space Age showed them to be hostile to complex organisms). Thus the need to go mining around Alpha Centauri in Avatar.

In contrast we have the alien moon Pandora, which, despite the fact that most of the life forms and even the air are dangerous and deadly to Earth natives, is perceived of as some kind of Garden of Eden to the human race of the Twenty-Second Century. Certainly in Avatar little time is wasted in making sure that we see the humans and their technology on Pandora as short-sighted at best and outright destructive at worst while the native beings on that moon – while being more hostile overall than in any jungle on Earth – are revealed to be in a harmonious and literal connection with each other.

We the audience are supposed to take this to mean that the Na’vi are not only the “good guys” but also good in general, even above the humans in a moral and spiritual sense. Granted it was the humans who “invaded” their world and brought motives and items with them that are not for the benefit of the Na’vi, despite the representative company boss’ retort that they tried to give the natives schools and roads but rejected all their overtures.

But the Na’vi people are not saints, they are mortal creatures just like the human species. The fact that so many of the Omaticaya are warriors (or are at least among the highest ranking social order of their people) implies that they battle with each other just as most aboriginal tribes on Earth did for ages. The Na’vi are not better or worse than the humans, they are just different and wonderfully adapted – to the world they evolved on.

This is one of the two main issues I have with the themes and depictions in Avatar. By making the Na’vi out to be better than humanity because they are so “natural” while our technological civilization has brought nothing but hardships and problems to Earth and now to Pandora, this reinforces the notion among those in our society who think all technology is evil and only by returning completely to nature can we be saved.

The conclusion of Larry’s essay will appear tomorrow.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Paul Titze January 15, 2010, 10:57

    I watched Avatar at the movies a couple of weeks ago, liked the starship and the 3D graphics. Not quite sure if people will see the deeper issues that Larry pointed out, to me it was just another interesting movie but I won’t buy it on DVD or watch it again.

    Larry wrote:

    “while our technological civilization has brought nothing but hardships and problems to Earth and now to Pandora, this reinforces the notion among those in our society who think all technology is evil and only by returning completely to nature can we be saved.”

    This reminds me of the saying: A poor tradesman blames his tools not himself ;-)

    Cheers, Paul.

  • Athena Andreadis January 15, 2010, 12:11

    The other obvious references besides Anderson’s Call Me Joe are Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and C. J. Cherryh’s Hisa from her Alliance/Union universe (most prominently Downbelow Station).

    There is no coherent biology/sociology in Avatar, so I won’t discuss that aspect beyond what I already wrote in Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas. Regarding what contemporary Hollywood films teach their audiences, my conclusions can be found in Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain.

    Specifically in the case of Avatar , there are reports that after watching the movie lots of people are upset that they can’t live in a Pandora-like woo paradise. So instead of environmental activism or cross-cultural sensitization, we get tantrums of “Why can’t we stay in Never Land forever, mommy?” Aaron Bady made this point extremely cogently in his review Avatar and the American Man-Child: “Don’t you want to be an Indian little boy?”.

    In the end, Avatar is profoundly anti-scientific. Not only does the movie turn from SF to fantasy (an inherently conservative trope), not only does it infantilize its audience — it also trashes science both as a rigorous mental discipline and a romantic quest for knowledge.

  • nwing January 15, 2010, 12:43

    Completely agree. Technology is the salvation of the human race, AND of everything natural on the earth. Eventually, everything is assured either a gradual or violent demise unless otherwise saved by it.

    The ‘feel bad to feel good’ mentality is selfish and foolish and pays no sincere heed to the needs of the future.

    Nature is an unfeeling force that will not so much as blink if humanity (or any other form of life) is wiped out. Of course, you do not want to contaminate that which you need to survive and that which lends beauty and meaning to life……but fanatical obsessions with promulgating the belief of ‘man is a destructive ecological bully’ is selfish, short sighted, and manipulative to put it mildly.

    Neither our salvation, nor the earth’s, lie in casting off and returning ourselves to being at the mercy of the natural elements. Rather we have a responsibiliy as the only sentient and capable beings on the planet to raise ourselves up, conquer new territory, and take all that we can of the natural world of earth with us, thereby saving and ensuring its survival as well.

    Much like how parents want their children to achieve and become more than they did by building on their achievements and efforts, the earth (nature) has the same desire for us……. it is ‘genetically’ written. We are its pinnacle achievement in its efforts to spread and grow, which I will remind the ‘naturalists’ out there, is exactly what nature and the life it produces is all about. Few things could disappoint and fail our ‘mother earth’ more than if we allowed our fears of not being ‘perfect’ in the eyes of the self absorbed ‘ecological elite’ to dissuade us from advancing humanity, and nature itself along with us, beyond what nature on its own could do.

    Pandora should be a window into what could happen, both good and bad. If we did, and I find it EXTREMELY UNLIKELY, find another planet that even remotely resembles Pandora, the awe and fascination with it I have no doubt would bring about an enlightenment never before seen on earth. Industry can (and will) save our planet from our need to use it…. and Avatar shows that very well for those who are looking, and if not, adequately shown.

    Thanks for the site…… it is an excellent resource.

  • Tim January 15, 2010, 13:32

    While I agree with your general thrust, that technology isn’t bad, nor are primitive peoples better or stronger than technological peoples, the moon will have some radiation shielding from its magnetic field, and since the gravity is lower it will have a larger atmosphere for shielding for the same pressure than earth. Isn’t it pandorapedia that has the point about large scale vulcanism and the occasional steralisation of an area by radiation? Also, all four of Jupiters major moons have orbital inclinations of less than half a degree, so jupiter’s rings would be edge on from there.
    As a final point, I don’t accept that there is such a thing as too much technology, although there is such a thing as an innappropriate or dangerous technology.

  • Marcel F. Williams January 15, 2010, 13:39

    There’s no way that the Earth could support nearly 7 billion hunter-gatherers. If we really love the Earth then the best way to save it is to begin to exploit the astronomical asteroid resources of our solar system to manufacture our own Earth-like artificial worlds. There’s enough asteroid resources in our solar system to easily support quadrillions of people.

    Hopefully, if we ever travel to other Earth-like worlds in our galaxy, we’ll have the common sense to exploit the asteroid materials in that new solar systems while designating the new Earths as nature preserves to be protected and explored for thousands of generations to come.

  • Darrell E January 15, 2010, 13:42

    You spend the majority of this first part of your essay talking about issues that don’t seem to have anything to do with your main issue. The last three or four paragraphs just don’t seem to go with all the rest of the essay, and the earlier parts just seem to detract from your main point. Up until those last three or four paragraphs, it just sounds like you really don’t like the movie and are determined to nitpick it. I do think that your main issue is on point though.

    Although I would love to see a very smart, scientifically accurate, scifi movie with a great story, and acting, done on a grand scale like Avatar, my expectations are not the same for real world things as they are for a movie. I don’t have the same problems you have with the planet / moon system in this story. The idea of a life bearing moon in orbit around a gas giant has enough validity to it that scientists have attempted to model such scenarios to get an idea of the probabilities. As far as debris pulled in by Polyphemus, and from any ring systems, impacting the moon we just do not have enough data to determine whether or not this would make a complex living ecosystem impossible or not. Perhaps the system just happens to be particularly clean compared to our system. Maybe there are regular catastrophic impact events comparable to our Jurassic extinction event and the story just happens to take place in a time between events. Why would you expect the filmaker to include such information in the story? I think the same type of argument, too little data as of yet to be sure, holds for tectonic activity, radiation belts and cultural impacts as well. We have only a very small set of samples so far, and we haven’t figured them out yet.

    There are plenty of other things to complain about in this movie, mainly the basic story line. I am surprised that you applaud the movie for having an antimatter powered spaceship but criticize it for having a life bearing moon around a gas giant planet. Which one of these concepts currently seems less realistic? How are you going to create / harvest, and contain for decades, the amounts of antimatter that would be necessary for a Valkyrie type starship? What data do we have so far on anitmatter rocket propulsion?

    I do agree with you on your main point though. This movie will reinforce the technology / science is bad meme in many of the people that watch it. I couldn’t guess if this movie will have a major effect on such people though, as this meme has been spread far and wide from innumerable sources since at least Shelley’s Frankenstein. I am not so sure that that was intended though. The movie does treat the actual scientists in this movie as heroes. I think of this movie more as another missed chance to break the tired old cliche of science / technology is bad, by showing science and technology as being absolutely essential to solving very complex problems, not as a major negative impact on this issue all by itself.

  • Gary Allen January 15, 2010, 15:41

    Marcel F. Williams said:
    “There’s no way that the Earth could support nearly 7 billion hunter-gatherers. If we really love the Earth then the best way to save it is to begin to exploit the astronomical asteroid resources of our solar system to manufacture our own Earth-like artificial worlds. There’s enough asteroid resources in our solar system to easily support quadrillions of people. ”

    This is completely correct. I have to repeat a dreary comment that I made in an earlier thread. There are two basic types of civilizations in the universe:

    Type-A: Civilizations that live beyond their planet of origin.
    Type-B: Civilizations that die with their planet of origin.

    A Type-A civilization expands beyond its planet of origin and continues development based upon off-world resources. For human beings to achieve a Type-A civilization we need to first colonize Mars, then construct asteroid habitats as Marcel F. Williams described and then shift the population centroid of our civilization to the Saturn system with its abundant natural resources and minimal radiation hazard. After fully developing an economic system based upon the Saturn system’s resources, we would be in a position to develop interstellar vehicles. I should add that the logical future of the Earth would be as Marcel F. Williams implied, i.e. the Earth would be depopulated and its original natural balance restored with human beings acting as loving guardians of the mother world rather than as exploiters (Nobody is “greener” than a space resource development advocate). As I mentioned in an earlier comment, it is utter nonsense that human beings would be economically compelled to leave a dying Earth to pillage another star system. A Type-B civilization might do something like that if it could but by definition a Type-B civilization does not have interstellar capability.

  • Tulse January 15, 2010, 15:51

    Technology is the salvation of the human race, AND of everything natural on the earth.

    But in many cases technology is also the reason the human race is in need of saving. While technology can be hugely beneficial, it is also the case that at both a local (e.g., Bhopal) and global (e.g., AGW) level, the misuse of technology is often a destructive force. I am by no means anti-technology (far far from it), but I think it is important to realize that when one says technology is neutral, that means it can produce both good and bad consequences.

    Regarding the scientific accuracy of the film, while I understand that on this blog much of the focus is on the plausibility of the planetary physics and geology, I think the most implausible thing about the film (apart from interstellar travel so soon in the future) is the “avatar” technology itself. Really, that seems to me to be far more improbable than the celestial mechanics or ecosphere issues raised.

    And let’s also be charitable and point out things that this film got right. For example, Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans. I believe this is the first time I have seen a science fiction film that has a realized ecosystem where humans can’t just wander around unprotected. In addition, the aliens, despite being humanoid, are indeed alien — about twice the size of humans, and clearly with different neural arrangements. I don’t know of another major non-adapted film where intelligent, civilized aliens nonetheless are so different from humans. And for all the complaints about the consistency of the ecosystem, this is one of the first science fiction films to actually attempt any consistency in a truly alien ecology. Almost all the creatures (with the admittedly marked exception of the Na’vi) are six-limbed and four-eyed, and all the organisms seem to have phosphorescent markings. In my view, this puts Avatar light-years ahead of sci-fi films set in generic jungles or deserts, and marks it as the most complete presentation of a fully-realized biosphere.

    And the technology that was presented was also fairly realistic. For example, unlike almost every other film that invokes immersive virtual reality, the death of one’s avatar did not actually kill the participant. This is a point that I have always found profoundly irritating in science fiction, and I was delighted to see that this obvious mistake was recognized and not repeated here. Also, the military technology used was pretty straightforward — no anti-gravity sleds or forcefields or even directed energy weapons, just plain extrapolations from what we currently have (indeed, the lack of beam weapons may be too conservative).

    Would I have liked Avatar to be more consistent in its biology? Would I have liked it to be more accurate in its science? Sure. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that, as I see it, Avatar is in many ways the most scientifically accurate sci-fi film of the past several decades. (Of course, other posters may want to offer different candidates for that title.)

    Finally, as for the “anti-technology” message, I think that is reading far too much into the film. Cameron’s work have alway been anti-corporate (as in Aliens, with its slimy yuppie attempting to use the aliens as bioweapons), and suspicious of the excesses of military power (as in The Abyss), but he hasn’t ever been clearly anti-technology, and this film is no exception. Avatar is definitely anti-colonial, anti-exploitation, but it is not anti-technology just because it has a species in it that uses little in the way of technology — by that criterion, practically every Western that portrays Native Americans sympathetically could be seen as “anti-technology”.

    To be clear, I don’t think that Avatar is a great film (it’s preachy and fairly obvious, and giant blue aliens don’t particularly grab me). But I think the charges being levelled against it here are far too extreme, and fail to set it in its context.

  • Gary Allen January 15, 2010, 15:58

    Poul Anderson in his novel “Satan’s World” (1969) explored the idea of what could happen if a Type-B cilivilization gained interstellar capability. The premise was the technology was handed to primitive beings after the originating civilization collapsed due to a natural disaster and follow-on genocide.

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) January 15, 2010, 16:30

    //Specifically in the case of Avatar , there are reports that after watching the movie lots of people are upset that they can’t live in a Pandora-like woo paradise. So instead of environmental activism or cross-cultural sensitization, we get tantrums of “Why can’t we stay in Never Land forever, mommy?”//

    Hmmm. There has to be a way we can – gently – nudge people towards realism. Not by pouring out contempt on them, but by pointing out the them where they’re going wrong.

  • Athena Andreadis January 15, 2010, 16:41

    Darrell: the movie didn’t treat the scientists as heroes. Grace Augustine made the avatars possible in the first place so that Jake could go gamboling, spent a significant portion of her life learning Na’vi language and culture in depth, and actively advocated a peaceful solution. Yet she did not get her very own native prince to spend his entire time teaching her to become one of/with the people. And she died in the end, too weak a vessel (or maybe too full of thought) to endure Eywa’s awesomeness.

  • Adam January 15, 2010, 17:19

    Hi All

    According to the associated lit Polyphemus isn’t as big as Saturn, thus would have a lower magnetic moment. Plus proximity to the star would compress the extent of its magnetosphere significantly – Jupiter’s radiation belts embrace Ganymede because Jupiter is so far from the Sun. Even today the radiation exposure on Ganymede is high, but not impossible, even if Europa and Io are more dubious prospects.

    Another thought. What if the Navi are constructs? Or a technological end-state so that their required tech is embedded in the ecosystem? Possibilities that might mitigate the Ludditism that Cameron (who’s no Luddite) has inadvertantly promoted.

  • Athena Andreadis January 15, 2010, 17:50

    Regarding technology, both sides are right. It’s true that technology allowed us to reach the population levels we have today, and live longer and (some of us at least) more comfortable lives. But it’s also true that we created severe problems with our technology by unforeseen consequences.

    Tulse, you said: “this is one of the first science fiction films to actually attempt any consistency in a truly alien ecology. Almost all the creatures (with the admittedly marked exception of the Na’vi) are six-limbed and four-eyed.” You must realize that biologically this is about as bad as escaping a black hole through a “crack” in its horizon. It negates evolution by separating the Na’vi from the rest of the ecosystem, while insisting that they can be its masters through their ponytail USBs.

    Adam, you raise an excellent point. In one of my fiction cycles, I have posited exactly such a culture: one whose very advanced technology is biological, embedded in the environment and does not use cogs or wheels. But don’t use bows and arrows to hunt animals. That’s simply not consistent with advanced tech.

  • T_U_T January 15, 2010, 18:42

    ut I think it is important to realize that when one says technology is neutral, that means it can produce both good and bad consequences.

    wrong. Technology is not neutral. Take the a welding for example. You can use it to make something, but you can use it to kill someone in an especially grisly wa. Seemingly neutral. But if you compare the amount of use of welding torches ( included uses that directly save life ), and the amount of abuse of welding torches ( included cases where is has been used as a murder weapon ) you will find that the net effect is overwhelmingly positive.

    by that criterion, practically every Western that portrays Native Americans sympathetically could be seen as “anti-technology”.

    Two moments in the movie show that this is not true. First one is, where john explicitly says that we destroyed earths ecosystem completely.
    Second one is, where he says in his video log that humans don’t have anything the natives would want.

    This is clear ludditism. Technology as something useless for well-being, and technological civilization equal with destruction and corporate plunder. There was nothing in the movie that is not consistent with ludditic hatred of technology and idealization of the ‘noble savage’ view of pre-technological tribal society.

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) January 15, 2010, 18:43

    “Another thought. What if the Navi are constructs? Or a technological end-state so that their required tech is embedded in the ecosystem? Possibilities that might mitigate the Ludditism that Cameron (who’s no Luddite) has inadvertantly promoted.”

    I proposed the Forerunner hypothesis before as a way to handwave away a lot of issues. It didn’t have many takers.

  • John January 15, 2010, 19:57

    “Cameron has declared that Avatar’s elements come from ‘every single science fiction book I read as a kid,’ thus covering all his bases.”

    Try “every single Outer Limits episode I watched as a kid.” Cameron is a serial plagiarist and a liar. Though I found only one critic who noticed it (and I read a lot of reviews), Avatar appears to be a direct steal from the episode “The Chameleon.” In it a crippled earth fighter (though he is emotionally crippled in the episode, not physically) is recruited by the military to infiltrate a ship of aliens by the radical procedure of having himself transformed into one. He is to learn their intent and do what is necessary to stop them (their intent the episode implies may well be hostile though that is not certain). He instead learns the whole conflict has been a misunderstanding and after following his mission and killing one of the aliens, decides to stay with them and return to their home planet, thus achieving his emotional healing. The humans for their part decide to let the ship go. The episode had be found on Youtube and is remarkable for its maturity and sympathetic (empathetic?) treatment to both sides. There is no question in my mind Cameron robbed all the key ideas of Avatar from the episode, though he ignored the maturity and empathy business, whatever they are.
    I appreciate Larry Klaes thoughts on the film, but I think we have to be realistic in the assessment of its long-term impact: Avatar is a disaster for anyone who dreams and/or thinks of interstellar flight. The movie is absurd and stupid in a way that leaves anyone who loves science and discovery feeling unclean. The fact that the film is such a hit (though in real monetary terms, e.g. tickets sold, not so much), I believe bodes ill for the future of public support for space-flight.

  • drpayton January 15, 2010, 21:56

    I think the formost goal of any sience(fiction) movie is to cause the viewer to suspend disbelief. If the movie can make u believe for the duration that this is possible then it is a success. I really don’t believe that the movie will cause anyone to believe that space travel is a bad thing. Its a movie and will be mostly forgotten in a few months or years as we move on to newer and better movies… It was a beautiful movie (though not accurate) it was still very captivating, but I think most people won’t really even associate it with the reality of interstellar travel. I looked forward to its release because it seemed novel and though it has ideas previously used I think I can name many many good movies that did the same thing… Every romantic comedy has the same central plot… I don’t believe the idea of true space travel has been deminished by a work of fiction… With that said from the point of view of an artist I think it was incredible and monumentally vivid! I liked the way it showcased a true human trait (greed). This type of conquest has happened over and over in human history and is in direct opposition to the startrek edict of not contacting alien species first. The sad truth of it is that most likely it WILL be commercial industry that funds star travel. Hopefully if we do meet a new sentient species it won’t be like avatar or district 9.

  • Darrell E January 15, 2010, 22:27

    Athena Said:
    “Darrell: the movie didn’t treat the scientists as heroes.”

    I disagree. All of the scientists in the movie are depicted as being good people that are willing to sacrifice in order to try and correct the wrongs being visited on the aliens by their own species. Though this is of course a subjective issue, that is pretty much classic heroism in any kind of story telling, or even in reality. Heroism does not require any kind of reward. As for doctor Grace Augustine not making it through the transfer attempt, I saw nothing in the story that even hinted that this was because of weakness or unworthiness.

    Maybe I’ve misunderstood you. Are you saying, in a round about way, that the story is typically male chauvinistic and that Grace Augustine should have been the main hero? I agree that that would have been great. A person that is both female AND a scientist as the main hero of the story would be very refreshing. However, I still don’t see why the scientist’s in the actual story would not be considered heroic.

  • Athena Andreadis January 15, 2010, 23:48

    Darrell, Grace Augustine should have been the hero, and I use the male form on purpose. Not necessarily because she’s a woman, though it would have been fine to have a native prince squire a woman around for a change — or, for that matter, have a reciprocal knowledge exchange with Neytiri. She should have been the hero because she earned that reward that was handed casually to Jake Sully even though he didn’t really deserve it. Furthermore, the implication is that if she thought less and “felt” more she might have been accepted by the Na’vi. “Close your eyes and feel the Force, Luke.” Snort.

  • Brian Barker January 16, 2010, 0:02

    I like neither na’vi nor klingon as the future global language. Especially when you have to dress up for it :D

    We also need a future international language. One which is easy to learn, as well !

    And that’s not English! Esperanto? Certainly yes!

    Please look at http//www.lernu.net

  • Kris January 16, 2010, 7:42

    While I enjoy reading the posts and comments on this site (it’s a true holiday from the usual stupidity of the internet), it seems quite useless to dissect SF movies in this manner. In this age where we have more information than we can possibly consume, the origins of every specific piece of info we choose to use and believe in, becomes more and more important. I truly believe that no one will base their view on space travel after some SF movie, even one with very impressive CGI. If this wouldn’t be the case, then the general public would see the universe as very bizarre and dangerous place, when combined of all the SF/fantasy movies Hollywood (and others) have created.
    When the time comes and if the general public will have a say, they will say yes to deep space travel and technology in general, because, I think, no one really disagrees with the fact that we need technology, we just need more advanced and “greener” ones.

  • Terraformer (given name = Tobias Holbrook, getting my digital paper trail up) January 16, 2010, 7:53

    One of my criticism of the movie is the stupidity of the mining corp – it would have been so much easier just to tunnel under, fill with a Terran atmosphere, and mine from there. Everyone’s happy.

  • Athena Andreadis January 16, 2010, 12:08

    Kris, the public does see the universe as a bizarre and dangerous place. They are almost encouraged to be scientifically illiterate, which feeds into the culture of disempowerment and fear that demagogues and power mongers cultivate to thrive. In addition to writing popular science, I do basic biology research connected to dementia and have observed the phenomenon first-hand from several angles.

    A bit more here about both sides of this issue, if you’re interested:

    Science Fiction Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
    http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=1169

    Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain
    http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=1441

  • bigdan201 January 16, 2010, 12:51

    To answer alot of the points you brought up, the pandora moon was designed to be an anthropomorphic feel-good setting. Having a big gas giant in the sky is cool.. having forests and vegetation more lush than anything on earth is cool.. having exotic wildlife is cool.. and so on. It wasn’t about being tied to science or reality, but rather an ideal fantasy world. The Na’vi themselves were anthropomorphic noble savages who represented neo-luddite romanticism, indigenous culture romanticism, and environmentalism. They were morally and spiritually superior to the humans with their borderline mystic connection with nature.. and the humans were portrayed as cynical, greedy exploiters and destroyers.

    In spite of this, Avatar was a good movie. Not only for the great visuals and entertaining drama, but also because of this: however flawed the presentation mightve been, it has ignited a great amount of debate and thought in response. Its success as a catalyst is just as major as its success as a visual breakthrough.

    Still, I think that it would be great if there was a scifi film that didnt simply use the genre as a vehicle for fantasy or drama (although im not against that), but also as a serious look at the universe and possibilities. If I had to create aliens, I would make them insectoid with some sort of queen/hivemind. But they wouldnt be good and pure like the Na’vi, and they wouldn’t be evil space invaders. They would be intelligent but just profoundly different, with their own motivations, but the same need for resources as us.

    By the way, technology wins. Ask anyone who’s used antibiotics.

  • Zen Blade January 16, 2010, 12:56

    I have said this before, and I will say it again: PEOPLE’s interpretation of Avatar are COMPLETELY biased by their own perceptions of life. There is not a clear “this interpretation is correct”. You can easily argue that the scientists are the heroes of the movie. They want a peaceful solution, they want to expand knowledge and to learn. You can argue that science and technology are evil b/c the people attempting to kill the Na’vi use science and technology, but this is an over simplification. People appear to be oversimplifying “the message” in Avatar based on their own world view and their own desire to see the movie as either reinforcing or critiquing their world view.

    There are many other interpretations of the movie with regards to many topics. Therefore, a lot of this following quote is essentially a straw-man set up so that the author can make his perspective on life known. What follows after the quote is not an attack against the author. Rather, what follows is a statement against the many individuals, who attest that Avatar must be making a specific statement only to later trash Avatar OR to trash the specific statement that the author claims Avatar is making. Here’s the specific part of the essay that I am referencing:

    “In contrast we have the alien moon Pandora, which, despite the fact that most of the life forms and even the air are dangerous and deadly to Earth natives, is perceived of as some kind of Garden of Eden to the human race of the Twenty-Second Century. Certainly in Avatar little time is wasted in making sure that we see the humans and their technology on Pandora as short-sighted at best and outright destructive at worst while the native beings on that moon – while being more hostile overall than in any jungle on Earth – are revealed to be in a harmonious and literal connection with each other.
    We the audience are supposed to take this to mean that the Na’vi are not only the “good guys” but also good in general, even above the humans in a moral and spiritual sense. Granted it was the humans who “invaded” their world and brought motives and items with them that are not for the benefit of the Na’vi, despite the representative company boss’ retort that they tried to give the natives schools and roads but rejected all their overtures.

    But the Na’vi people are not saints, they are mortal creatures just like the human species. The fact that so many of the Omaticaya are warriors (or are at least among the highest ranking social order of their people) implies that they battle with each other just as most aboriginal tribes on Earth did for ages. The Na’vi are not better or worse than the humans, they are just different and wonderfully adapted – to the world they evolved on.

    This is one of the two main issues I have with the themes and depictions in Avatar. By making the Na’vi out to be better than humanity because they are so “natural” while our technological civilization has brought nothing but hardships and problems to Earth and now to Pandora, this reinforces the notion among those in our society who think all technology is evil and only by returning completely to nature can we be saved.”
    ——end quote

    Let me start by saying that I did not think that the Na’vi were “better than humanity” because they were more natural, or b/c humans had technology. I DID NOT THINK the Na’vi were better than humans nor did I think that the movie attempted to portray them as being better; that would be an incredibly racist perspective based upon the actions of a few individuals. A perfectly valid and alternative interpretation is that there are humans who wish to take advantage of other individuals and there are humans who would rather live in peace (whether they have technology or not). Just like there were Na’vi who wanted to live in peace and Na’vi who wanted to be warriors and the Na’vi clans who fought. Similarly, there were Na’vi who accepted Grace and her school, and there were Na’vi who kicked Grace out? Why? Because of her actions?

    And I do not think the movie attempts to cast the Na’vi as better than humans. The movie presents the Na’vi as a group of individuals who are just as flawed as anyone else.

    The only people for whom the movie, “reinforces the notion among those in our society who think all technology is evil and only by returning completely to nature can we be saved”, are for those people who want to read that message into the movie. Without the scientists who made the Avatar’s (the title of the movie), the Na’vi would have been destroyed. Without technology the main character in the movie (who can be seen as a dead man walking) would not have become a living Avatar. If anything, the movie would seem to imply that greed is bad, and it is only enlightened individuals who seek the common good that can save us from that greed. Irrespective of whether those individuals have technology or science or sticks and stones.

    I realize that the author of this post is not necessarily disagreeing with my statements, but to claim that the movie paints some rosey anti-technology message is simply false. Rather than claiming that the movie does so, rather than starting an argument by highlighting the opposing viewpoints–creating a strawman–, one should simply state your viewpoint and present the evidence. However, like any good book or film or piece of art or music, there are multiple valid interpretations that will ring true for different individuals and different audiences.

    Avatar is not about making the movie with the most accurate science, it is about telling a story in a science fiction world. We should be glad that the movie primarily invokes thoughts of space exploration, alien worlds, and alien civilizations rather than thoughts of past colonialism.

    anyways,
    I needed to get some of that off my chest. I have felt that too many of the Avatar-related posts here have really just been anti-Avatar posts without looking at the larger significance of Avatar on people of all ages.

    -Zen Blade

  • bigdan201 January 16, 2010, 13:05

    By the way, space exploration and colonization, as a social question, WILL happen. The main hurdle is the technology and infrastructure.. once that’s in place, people will absolutely go to space.
    First there’s scientific expeditions, which are already underway.
    Second is commercial mining and trade.
    Third comes colonization.

    Just look at history. For #2, People have established enormous trade routes (like from the Indonesian spice islands to europe, or the silk road from china to rome etc.) in pursuit of profit.
    For #3, people left built-up europe to go on dangerous ocean voyages for months, to colonize a wilderness populated by native tribes of varying hostility.
    Religion, wanderlust, economics, and other social forces will ensure that mankind goes to other worlds, once technology/infrastructure is in place. Negative opinions of space colonization will do little to hinder this.

  • Terraformer (given name = Tobias Holbrook, getting my digital paper trail up) January 16, 2010, 13:40

    ““There’s no way that the Earth could support nearly 7 billion hunter-gatherers.”

    Well, actually… we could. It would just require massive engineering projects to make the climate more amenable, and genetic modification to create bumper yields. Technology is not the problem – not applying it in the right way is.

    I must say, some of these comments assume that the ‘general public’ are idiots, and believe whatever Hollywood tells them,. I must say, in some ways that;s true – but bitching and moaning about the films won’t change that. Using it as a springboard to discuss the actual reality of things will.

  • James M. Essig January 16, 2010, 13:47

    Hi Folks;

    I had a few musings on the more realistic terminal velocity of the 0.7 C space ship in the movie.

    I hope that FTL travel, wormhole shortcuts in space time into regions of space, past, present, or future, and higher dimensional hyper-spatial short cuts are possible and perhaps such techniques will be developed at some point. At the same time, I am mindful of some of the paradoxes that such effects might lead to and so it seems that if nature permits such naturally occurring superluminal effects that involve time travel in to the past, to the extent that free will is assumed to exist and that such incursion from the future into our present, and/or past, or from the present into our past, assuming that there exist only one history within our reified universe, the integrity of cause and effect would gradually degrade and the 4-D Einsteinian world we live in would gradually be scrambled at an ever accelerating rate as violations causality would be spread and amplified by human free acts, and/or any ETI peoples free acts.

    Perhaps nature prevents such disintegration of time ordered causality by imposing C as an absolute inviolate law that is more unshakable than the laws of conservation of mass-energy, after all if the integrity of causality can be messed with, then the universe would quickly degrade into a naturally lawless state where no laws would exist at all. There might be some fundamental reason why the Einstein Postulated an ultimate speed of C which may be inherent in the existential fabric of space time and mass-energy.

    Now I could be wrong in my above assessments, and I still hold out hope for safe superluminal travel. However, if the limit of C proves inviolable in an absolute sense, then at least we have the entire future to engineer space craft able to achieve ever higher gamma factors. I like to muse on the ramifications of somehow achieving a gamma factor of the first cardinality of infinity or of Aleph 0 number of light years per Planck unit ship time. If gamma = Aleph 0 can be reached, what about gamma = Aleph 1, or gamma = Aleph 2 and so on. What would we discover at such infinite gamma factors. My guess is that upon reaching the speed of light exactly at gamma = the least transfinite ordinal value we typically refer to as infinity, we might discover a whole entire realm, perhaps of dimensionality or other characteristics for which we currently have no scientific lexicographical or heuristic principles to describe. A gamma factor equal Aleph 1 might imply reaching a velocity of C1 in such a manner that the velocity of C1 is much more C that C, and likewise, reaching a value of C2 might imply much more C than C1, and so on.

    And yes, I know, I seem to be delving into a word salad here, but I feel that humanity will have all eternity to contemplate the wonders of the ever growing cosmos and so I am optimistic of the notion that the extreme limits of our species are at least as great as the least transfinite ordinal value.

    The point of this philosophical musing is that the realistic scenario of the propulsion system of the ship to Pandora of 0.7 C, even though not warp drive, or wormhole travel can and should nonetheless inspire us for “What Dreams May Come!”.

    Assuming human civilization in some form or another may last forever will require that the integrity and order of natural causality remains in tacked, and the order an integrity of human social structures and any ETI social structure including those of the mythical Na’vi people of Pandora implies the stability of the natural order of causality, even more so if we assume that eternal civilized society of at least some rational peoples is possible.

    An absolutely beautiful thing is that a gamma factor = Aleph 0 would enable the space craft to travel an Aleph 0 light-years in Planck Time Unit ship time. The paradox seems supported by the mathematics of special relativity. The Caveats of how to completely cloak the ship from the universe and other effects so as to not trash the universe by extreme energy interaction and the ship also might be problems for which better and better solutions may be engineered in the coming Google or Google-Plex years assuming that somehow the universe does not die a thermodynamic heat death.

    Either way, I would be happy to Christen the first manned starship by 2050 in orbit. I would even hope to smack a bottle of the best wine I can buy for $1,000 USD current value over its bow. By then if all goes well, I will be 88 years old. Pandora, here we come. I hope Virgin Galactic is well versed in space tourism by then.

  • kurt9 January 16, 2010, 14:53

    I have not seen the film. There is another interpretation of the film that is more positive. I think this film is actually a defense of property rights as well as anti-war. It is essentially the SF version of the “Kelo v. City of New London” court case:

    http://original.antiwar.com/henderson/2010/01/10/in-defense-of-avatar/

    This interpretation of the film is actually quite prevalent in China:

    http://volokh.com/2010/01/14/avatar-and-property-rights-in-china/

  • ad January 16, 2010, 14:54

    Second one is, where he says in his video log that humans don’t have anything the natives would want.

    Do the natives have a metalworking technology?

    Try to cut much wood with a stone axe, and you will see the benefits of a steel one.

  • T_U_T January 16, 2010, 14:54

    Religion, wanderlust, economics, and other social forces will ensure that mankind goes to other worlds, once technology/infrastructure is in place. Negative opinions of space colonization will do little to hinder this.

    I beg to differ here. Consider how fear of radiation hampered nuclear energy for example.

  • Jonathan Burns January 16, 2010, 16:03

    On noble savages and such:

    Suppose we had near-lightspeed travel right now, and some tens of lightyears away we came upon an intelligent species; and suppose their civilization already had a few million years of continuity. My guess is that we would be quite conflicted in our reactions.

    To enjoy sustainability, they would have to be doing something we haven’t been doing. Limiting their technology and population, indoctrinating their young, fallowing continents, whatever it takes, but something. We would envy their future assurance, but we’d be doubtful that human beings could tolerate such discipline while keeping our freedoms and ambitions. I think it would be the same if these people showed up in a generation ship, having lived within its limited resources for millenia.

    Does being fully human entail accepting unstable civilizations? Or is there some middle way, where we can have both human fulfillment and assurance of continuity?

    The question Avatar was posing to me at first was: Is the Na’vi way of life desirable? Given the choice, are they something we would like to be? Later on, I turned to asking: Are the Na’vi tolerable as an outline of a sustainable human future?

    Of course one movie could hardly give us enough data. We seem to have a people to whom the balance of nature is art, science and solace in mortality — that’s not exactly impoverished. They don’t have to sustain their understanding of the balance by arduous study, because nature is quasi-sapient in itself. It is only appointed specialists who commune with the eco-mind, except on special occasions; but those specialists acquire an adequate picture of the whole quite easily, in a brief apprenticeship.

    For the rest, they seem to be content with a neolithic way of life. They work, they play, they mate for life, they risk their lives and mourn their dead. They are very well adapted to their circumstances, physiologically; indeed, they can immerse themselves in an almost animal being, all senses and adrenaline, given some basic competence training. They bend to nature, and nature, via neural connection, bends to them.

    One might suggest that in as far as they are evolving, this is a matter of willingly accepting selection pressure on young adults. They who can successfully join with dangerous riding animals, and take down dangerous prey, survive and breed.

    We have ambitions and resources they don’t; but what they do have provides scope for a good range of human motivations.

    In sum, it seems they can go on being quasi-human, and live this way more or less forever.

    There is a case that, if we want to get out in space colonies and generation ships, we will need something like what the Na’vi have. We’ll need an engineering technology which spontaneously bends to our needs; but we will depend absolutely on that technology, so we will privilege those adults who can work with it competently. And, if we want to bring much of nature along with us, that nature will be integral with our life support. It won’t be simply wild; we will need a cultivated nature which spontaneously bends to our needs; and we will privilege those adults who can comprehend and work with it, both holistically and directly. We will have to accept that ambitions inimical to the survival of the whole need restraining.

    On these grounds I’d resist writing off the Na’vi as merely infantile. They have a partial solution. It involves suffering, risk and death; it also involves educated restraint. But it doesn’t suppress ordinary human desires and purposes.

    For myself, I’d want more. I’d see a solution in terms of what George Zebrowski called “macrolife”, where whole habitats can spontaneously replicate themselves with fairly easy human participation. I’d also suggest that we will be creating software adjuncts to consciousness, tending toward artificial memory and telepathy, maybe even mind uploading. But, unless we prefer to be immersed in a completely engineered milieu, if we want anything like nature at all out there, then the life support system will be one with that nature, and competence in managing it will have to come naturally to us.

    Indeed, it occurred to me that it’s compatible with Avatar, that Pandora was actually a ship. The propulsion system is defunct, what’s left of it can only levitate rocks. But the life support system, that’s Eywa, is still running, and it has been maintaining both the ecosystem and the sapient inhabitants in a neolithic Eden, since goodness knows how far back.

  • Gary Allen January 16, 2010, 18:16

    Kris:
    “I truly believe that no one will base their view on space travel after some SF movie, even one with very impressive CGI.”

    Badly made SF movies in the 1950s were a significant motivation for the Apollo Program.

    Terraformer said:
    “I must say, some of these comments assume that the ‘general public’ are idiots, and believe whatever Hollywood tells them,. I must say, in some ways that;s true”

    This is correct.

    bigdan201 said:
    “By the way, space exploration and colonization, as a social question, WILL happen. The main hurdle is the technology and infrastructure.. once that’s in place, people will absolutely go to space.”

    Despite having the technology and industrial capability, space colonization probably will not happen and our species will die with the Earth (we’re probably Type-B). The main barriers are economic collapse, finite terrestrial resources and basic human stupidity. I’m hoping that the Singularity or a last minute surprise (an extraterrestrial artifact) will save our bacon. As it stands, we’re in a monkey trap and too stupid to let go of the banana.

  • T_U_T January 16, 2010, 18:35

    Try to cut much wood with a stone axe, and you will see the benefits of a steel one.

    They apparently don’t do much wood cutting.

  • Tulse January 16, 2010, 18:35

    I think that the charge of Ludditism against the film is silly. The film presents the problem as not technology per se, but the inappropriate use of it by greedy individuals interested in exploiting a native population. That is, technology itself is not the problem, but the way that morally corrupt humans employ it. Contrast, for example, practically any of Michael Crichton’s work, where even under the best and benign of intentions technology always goes awry, spinning out of human control. In his work, the problem is not that technology magnifies the ability of bad people to do bad, but that technology is bad in itself, and does bad by itself, even without human control. That is Ludditism. By contrast, Avatar is anti-colonialism, anti-economic imperialism, anti-using-technology-to-do-nasty-things-to-less-technologically-advanced-civilizations, but I don’t think it bears the label of outright anti-technology.

    Two moments in the movie show that this is not true. First one is, where john explicitly says that we destroyed earths ecosystem completely.

    And how is that anti-technology, as opposed to environmentalism (which, of course, is not the same)? Historically, many relatively “primitive” societies destroyed their local ecosystems, but I don’t see saying that makes one anti-technology.

    Second one is, where he says in his video log that humans don’t have anything the natives would want.

    And in the film this is literally true — the Na’vi don’t desire any human technology. (Although arguably one could say that the global entity Eywa, of which the Na’vi are merely a part, doesn’t desire any human technology.) Are you saying that the pro-technology position is that technology should be forced on those who don’t want it? Again, I see that as being an example of imperialism and colonialism, but not pro-technology.

  • P January 16, 2010, 19:20

    Wow, all these comments. And it seems to me that Ive never seen so much ‘epi-commentary’ about a sci-fi film in the mass media. That is an achievement in itself that may say more about the age we live in than anything intrinsic to the filmic text itself. People I know who have shown no interest in the hardware, biology, sociology or even the ontology of SF are all ranting about this film over their cappuccinos.

    Which brings me back to the film :) It certainly seems that Cameron et al started with the sexy blue noble savages as a first and guiding principle, and hung everything else, including the Earth technology, economics and politics, and the exoplanetology, onto that ‘germ’ and in support of it – because what are most of the people talking about? Its the sexy blue aliens, their sexy ‘Survivor’ Castaway lifestyles, and their exotic quasi-spiritual errr, mating habits! Is this about some kind of weird eco-sex tourism fantasy?

    P

  • andy January 16, 2010, 19:34

    I like to muse on the ramifications of somehow achieving a gamma factor of the first cardinality of infinity or of Aleph 0 number of light years per Planck unit ship time. If gamma = Aleph 0 can be reached, what about gamma = Aleph 1, or gamma = Aleph 2 and so on.

    ALERT! ALERT! Abuse of transfinite cardinals! The aleph numbers refer to the size of infinite sets, they are not real numbers.

    Plus also “cardinality of infinity”… no no no no no… cardinality is a property defined for sets. Aleph null is the cardinality of the natural numbers.

  • Athena Andreadis January 16, 2010, 23:45

    I think that if anyone here believes that Avatar had a legitimate message about the environment or non-First World people, they should go into action to implement it. Meanwhile, I have posted a story on my blog to help the drive that Crossed Genres established to aid Haiti by having SF/F authors link free stories to their site. If you read the story below and like it, please consider making a donation to one of the charities listed on their site.

    Contra Mundum
    http://www.starshipnivan.com/blog/?p=1499

  • James M. Essig January 17, 2010, 0:54

    Hi Andy;

    Sorry, I completely and politely have to disagree with you. Aleph 0 is the number of positive integers while Aleph 1 is the number of real numbers.

    By the way, if you think or contemplate the possible existence of an infinite universe, or an infinite number of universes as suggested by chaotic inflationary theory, and many other big bang cosmology theories, then you must be open minded to the existence of potentially infinite numbers of individual entities and an even greater infinite number of inter-relations between the set of all creatures. Sorry, the indistinguishablity of electrons or other particles does not nullify the possibility of infinite numbers of statistical mechanical states.

    Also there are an un-ending series of ever greater Cardinalities, but I suppose that if you imagine that the universe might be infinite then there could in no way exist an infinite number of particles, and yes an infinite multiverse may permit an infinite number of particle species. But I suppose if the universe just might be infinite, then infinite real quantities and sets cannot exist.

    For the record, I hold the opinion that there is likely to be such a large set of universes and yes even ETI persons, that the size of the set of elements where each such universe can be considered an element cannot be symbollically espressed except by means to say that it cannot be symbolically expressed even by the concept of symbolic cardinality notation.

    Now if we can imagine that the universe can be of infinite extent, or that there might exist an infinite number of universes, and multiverse, and forests, and biospheres, etc, then why cannot infinite values of gamma be obtained or gamma factors associated with the set of Planck Energy units where the size of the set is defined by Aleph 1, Aleph 2 and so-one. But I guess just because a Planck Energy Unit is identical to another means that a space craft having a kinetic energy defined by a a set of a trillion Planck energy units could not be said to possess a trillion planck energy units.

    By the way, I see as impossible an argument that there cannot exist a set of physical objects so large that the symbolism of cardinality and its notation could not define such sets. But I suppose if there are an infinite number of universes, and each univese is infinite, than the entire multiverse could not contain more particles, or ETI persons, than any one given sub-composition individual universe.

  • James M. Essig January 17, 2010, 1:43

    Here are a few good links on infinite cardinal numbers.

    http://www.wolframscience.com/nksonline/page-1127e-text?firstview=1
    http://www.eadon.com/phil/infinity.php
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinality
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleph_number
    http://www.knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/Aleph_0/

    The moral of the story is not all infinities are equal. The corollary is that not all infinite gamma factors are equal.

  • Ronald January 17, 2010, 8:00

    In the various threads about the movie Avatar various topics have been discussed, in particular its (lack of) scientific accuracy and the (false) idea of the noble savage and nature versus thenology, etc.

    However, it strikes me that, unless I just missed it in the multitude of comments, what has hardly been discussed is the broader ethical issue of human colonization and exploitation of an, any, inhabited planet per se. So, not just the presence of another intelligence, but any (higher) life forms.
    Really interesting ethical question here is, I think, in case we ever find, and are able to reach, other planets with life, should we settle them at all? What are the criteria and limits for that? Would it be ok for us to ‘take over’, as long as there is no (self-conscious) intelligence. Or should we refrain from any planets with higher lifeforms? How about planets with mainly/only single-celled life, are those ok? Or should we limit ourselves to lifeless but (relatively easily) terraformable planets?
    Or various levels of interference (scientific research, limited settlement, wholesale colonization, transformation, etc.) for various levels of indigenous planetary habitation?

    Is there a general ‘ethical guidelines of space exploration and colonization’?

    Just some thoughts and questions.

  • T_U_T January 17, 2010, 9:35

    And how is that anti-technology, as opposed to environmentalism (which, of course, is not the same)?

    Are you saying that the pro-technology position is that technology should be forced on those who don’t want it?

    You simply ignore the implications. The second part implies “The good guys in paradise dont’ need any technology. Technological civilization is completely useless for well being.” And the first part adds “the the guys that use it destroyed their own homeworld with it, and now they are using it to spread the destruction to other worlds.”

    So the technology is portrayed as useful only for the evil humans to do evil. Good non-humans have no use for it.

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) January 17, 2010, 9:50

    I’m not all that suprised that the Na’vi didn’t want anything from humans. They had immortality. They had an intimate connection with nature. The technology that they were being offered wasn’t helpful to them. I wonder what would have happened if they’d been given spaceships to spread Eywa?

    It explains why they didn’t worship Polyphemus, which most human societies would have done – they had a tangible relationship with their goddess: they didn’t need any other gods.

  • andy January 17, 2010, 11:25

    Aleph 0 is the number of positive integers while Aleph 1 is the number of real numbers.

    I’m going to have to disagree here. ℵ_1 is the cardinality of the set of countable ordinal numbers. The cardinality of the set of real numbers is 2^(ℵ_0). This may or may not be the same thing as ℵ_1: depends on whether you accept the continuum hypothesis and the axiom of choice. Since neither of these can be proven, you can’t just go stating that ℵ_1 is the cardinality of the real numbers.

    The moral of the story is not all infinities are equal. The corollary is that not all infinite gamma factors are equal.

    Sure, not all infinite sets are equal – for example the set of real numbers cannot be mapped to the set of natural numbers: the real numbers are a larger infinite set than the natural numbers. However this is all about sets. Gamma factors are a scalar quantity and are not cardinal numbers: the aleph numbers simply don’t apply. From the Wikipedia article on aleph numbers:

    The aleph numbers differ from the infinity (∞) commonly found in algebra and calculus. Alephs measure the sizes of sets; infinity, on the other hand, is commonly defined as an extreme limit of the real number line (applied to a function or sequence that “diverges to infinity” or “increases without bound”), or an extreme point of the extended real number line.

    In short, I’m afraid to say that regarding the issue of infinity and transfinite cardinals, what you are saying is nonsense.

  • Tulse January 17, 2010, 11:28

    The second part implies “The good guys in paradise dont’ need any technology. Technological civilization is completely useless for well being.”

    I didn’t say they didn’t need technology, just that they didn’t want it. For example, I’m sure advanced medical technology could have extended their lives and improved their health, but given their worldview, I doubt that they would see sickness and death as something to be avoided so strenuously. This may be a blinkered view of existence, but it is their view, and it is only arrogance to think that they have no right to such view.

    And the first part adds “the the guys that use it destroyed their own homeworld with it, and now they are using it to spread the destruction to other worlds.”

    Again, misuse of technology is not the same as rejection of technology. Crichton’s work argues that technology is inherently uncontrollable, necessarily evil. Cameron’s perspective (in this film and in other works) is clearly more about colonialism, imperialism, and misuse of militarism than it is anti-technology. Ripley doesn’t hate technology, just the evil corporation that want to weaponize the Aliens. The crew in The Abyss is surrounded by high tech diving equipment, which is shown off very positively, and the point of the film is about the dangers of wanting to kill that which we don’t understand. Arguably his films that are most “Luddite” are the Terminator movies, and those do suggest that certain technologies inevitably lead to destruction. However, I don’t recall a hue and cry over this implicit message when those films came out.

  • T_U_T January 17, 2010, 12:32

    I didn’t say they didn’t need technology, just that they didn’t want it.

    That does not change a thing in that particular context. I could also write

    The good guys in paradise dont’ want any technology. Technological civilization is viewed by them completely useless for their well being.

    And the anti-technology stance would still be there. Whether the guys don’t want technology or don’t need it, if you portray technology refusing folks as almost completely good and contrasting them with technology used almost exclusively for destruction, it can reasonably be viewed as endorsing their refusal of technology as well.

    ameron’s perspective (in this film and in other works) is clearly more about colonialism, imperialism, and misuse of militarism than it is anti-technology.

    I didn’t say it was his intent.

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) January 17, 2010, 13:55

    On another note, has anyone seen Dances with Smurfs? It’s quite good. Turns out, James Cameron stole the idea from some guy named Eric Cartman…

    http://www.xepisodes.com/southpark/episodes/1313/Dances-with-Smurfs.html