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Klaes on Avatar: Part Two

by Larry Klaes

We now wrap up Larry Klaes’ essay on Avatar (and Centauri Dreams’ coverage of the film) with a look at how and why humans will expand into the cosmos, with reflections on our society’s portrayal of aliens and of itself. How much does popular entertainment shape our conception of what we can and cannot do? Do we, as a species, have what it takes to journey out among the stars?

Before anyone wonders, I am hardly against nature and preserving our natural resources. What I am against is the naive view that our technological progress is all bad and destructive to us as a species. Most of our ancestors lived primarily natural lives until not that many centuries ago and while their lives may have been less cluttered and polluted in one sense, they also tended not to live as long due to a lack of modern medicines and other useful products of a technological civilization. Even Henry David Thoreau, whom many uphold as the naturalist who declared we should all go back to the wilderness, preferred a life balanced between nature and society (his cabin at Walden Pond was only a few miles from the center of Concord, Massachusetts, please note).

Technology in Balance

This attitude of extremes, which Avatar has only exacerbated, will only further reinforce the attitude that humanity has to dump all its civilized trappings and go live in the woods. This was the same “resolution” taken with the final episode of the recent television series Battlestar Galactica. Such a solution might work for a small group of people, but it would only spell disaster and genocide for most of the seven billion humans on Earth right now (and the many more billions that no doubt exist in 2154).

I think we are still rather young and stunned at all the rapid technological progress made in the last few centuries: Surprised and even frightened like a young child at the complexities of what we have created, along with the indiscretions that many youths display when given responsibilities for the first time. We need to learn to find a balance with our natural, biological selves and the technological aspects that are now an integral part of our lives. For many this is still too much to bear, causing them to wish for what they think were simpler and happier times, despite the fact that most civilized people are not familiar with natural living outside of an occasional camping trip.

I felt this article summed up the appeal of Avatar to audiences in 2010 who fear where society may be going in these current times and the desire for the safety and perceived simplicity of Mother Nature. This is why the Na’vi seem so appealing and heroic to us, despite the fact that they are not human and live in a world we could not inhabit without our various technologies. But ironically, as the very film has shown, these naturalist aliens are quite vulnerable to attacks from outside forces which are technologically superior to them.

Had the RDA really wanted to get that unobtanium at all costs (and who says they still won’t if their society becomes even more desperate for survival), they could have obliterated most of the life on Pandora by attaching rocket motors to some large planetoids which undoubtedly exist around Alpha Centauri A and dropped them all over the moon. They also could have aimed one of their starships (presumably unmanned) at Pandora at relativistic speed and kill most of the life there in one shot from the sheer amount of kinetic energy an impacting vessel moving at near light speed would cause (Pellegrino co-authored a novel titled The Killing Star with this very idea, only it was being done to us by an ETI).

Then the humans would just have to wait for the dust to settle and move in to mine their precious mineral. I doubt even Eywa, with all its connections that exceed the neurons in a human brain, could stop such an assault even if it knew what was coming, for none of its perfectly balanced natural elements seem prepared for any kind of major attack to its system such as a strike from space would be. As an interesting side note, it has been suggested that Gaia, the proposed being/system that is all life on Earth connected, evolved humans to deflect any impacts from comets or planetoids after the dinosaurs were unable to develop quickly enough to have their own space program that would have stopped the impact that wiped them out 65 million years ago.

I had to wonder if Eywa, defending itself as our human bodies use antibodies to defend against invading germs, might try to infect some humans with its organic matter so that when they returned to Earth, they would spread Eywa’s biological material to both stop the human threat and establish itself on our world at the same time. Eywa has “downloaded” the minds of several humans and no doubt has all the information to learn about us, including what our weaknesses are. I am sure it can be safely said that all life everywhere in the Cosmos is designed to survive at whatever cost, and who is to say the life on Pandora would not do what it has to do to survive, especially now that it knows there are both external threats and potential new habitats beyond its moon.

Save the Universe – Make Humans Stay Home?

My other concern from all this nature = good, technology = bad mindset is that the treatment of the Na’vi and Pandora at the hands of a corporate and militaristic humanity (Cameron didn’t promote much healing to the strong ideological divisions that have grown in the United States in past few decades with the broad strokes of the characters in his film) will give certain people and groups further reason to stop us from spreading our “evil” ways beyond Earth. As anyone with more than a bit of knowledge and awareness about the Universe realizes, things are not as bad or as simple as all that.

While I would not want to see our descendants “trashing” other worlds and stomping down on alien beings, it is not correct to think that this is how our children will necessarily behave once they start spreading into space, nor would even our most destructive tendencies even come close to bringing down the rest of existence in a Cosmos that is routinely producing exploding suns, radiation-spewing neutron stars, monster black holes, galactic jets, and whole galaxies that tear each other apart. The problem of this attitude is our perspective, which is still quite limited because we have only just begun to explore our celestial neighborhood. The vast majority of humanity still resides on Earth, and of them many keep their whole lives focused on this “pale blue dot”, which for them is all that matters.

This attitude has also led us to perceive our species as special in that all the Universe and any beings who are in charge of running things make humans their focal point. We are special of course in the sense that we are creatures of a certain level of intelligence and awareness about ourselves and our surroundings. However, if we place ourselves in a cosmic context, we are no more than subatomic particles on the widest scales of reality (I highly recommend the short film Powers of Ten to bring home just how vast and how small everything really is in relation to each other ). We can and could do great harm to our species and cause a fair deal of damage to our home planet, but in truth if we became extinct tomorrow Earth would heal itself and in a short time on geological scales there would hardly be any signs that we ever existed.

However, if we spread our species into space, we will be preserving at least some of us. Paradoxically, the very hostile nature of the Universe will also teach us a level of cooperation that we often feel we can take for granted on relatively safe and comfortable Earth. There are no guarantees that any other planet in the galaxy or beyond is attuned for our species in such a way that we could simply land there and start a colony without having to live in protected enclosures or wear sealed environmental suits, despite what Star Trek and similar series have often depicted. We may be able to terraform worlds that did not previously contain life, or we may find a way to coexist in enclosed technological societies on alien planets. Perhaps, rather than change other worlds, we will change our very selves to adapt to all sorts of environments, thus assuring our survival in many systems. Or a new intelligent species will be spawned by our civilization and head out into the galaxy instead, with its own motives and destinies.

To Boldy Go – But What About Wisely?

My next issue with Avatar is that they stuck with what so many other science fiction stories in novels, television, and film have done: The aliens who aren’t really so alien. The Na’vi are so similar to humans that Jake Sully could find himself attracted to both a female member of their species and find enough connections between his human self and the Na’vi to sincerely become one of them. This may have been terribly convenient both for our hero and for the comfort of our audience, but reality has a way of not conforming to human desires and perceptions.

As I have said before, similar environments may develop creatures with similar forms and behaviors, but there is no guarantee that any other world that can develop life will produce something that looks or acts like us. In fact we should probably take it as a given that any organisms we do encounter one day may be intelligent and aware, but they will not resemble humans or think and act quite as we do. This, and the fact that we live in a vast Cosmos with countless worlds, is among the reasons that our SETI efforts to date have yet to bear fruit.

I would like to see SF films that depict truly alien aliens, ones based on a degree of scientific reality that also do not interact or need to be “saved” by some humans. I think the aliens of Polish SF author Stanislaw Lem probably come close to at least the kind of ETI that really exist in our galaxy and all the others. Lem’s aliens have no need to conform to human standards or require rescuing by our species. While many stories for mass consumption feel obliged to have relatable characters and happy endings, Avatar being no exception here for certain, Lem’s works far better reflect reality in terms of how much we really do not know about the Universe and the many ambiguities that come from our ignorance.

Lem’s most famous work, Solaris, depicts an intelligence the size of a planet which none of the humans who attempt to study it can truly comprehend. There have been two film adaptations of Solaris so far, but while they succeed in their own certain ways, they also fell prey to the perceived needs of those who purchase the tickets and ended up being as much about the human characters as the alien Solaris and often more so. As Lem famously said in the novel:

“We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs man!”

The ‘Conquest’ of the Stars

Now while I find it foolish to project current human values on the rest of the Cosmos in terms of what humans may or may not do to it, or whether we are its most important creation or not, and how these fears and limitations could keep us from expanding and growing beyond our celestial cradle, I am also concerned to a similar degree about the kind of thinking that dreams of “conquering” the stars without really weighing the consequences of such actions.

As I have stated before, we are a very young species. If you have ever seen the episode of Cosmos by Carl Sagan where he shows how much human civilization would occupy in space and time if the entire history of the Universe were compressed to one Earthly calendar year, then you know how short a time we have existed in measured against the entire 13.7 billion year history of existence (in the Cosmos segment all of human history occupies but the last ten seconds of the last day of the Cosmic Calendar year.

On the one hand it is wonderful to be living in an era when we have sent vessels into space and in some cases even out of our Sol system, though the latter are not true starships in the sense that they are aimed at any particular stars or that they would reach even Alpha Centauri in the next tens of thousands of years. We have found hundreds of alien planets with the promise of many more to follow, including worlds that could resemble our own in size and other attributes. While we have not yet found other intelligences nor do we have actual starships wending their way into the Milky Way, we are conducting practical searches for ETI and our plans for interstellar vehicles gain more ground on reality every day.

On the other hand we have been fed a steady diet of cultural claims that we are the special and sacred beings of the Universe, not only from our religion but from our UFO cults and science fiction too. According to our stories, every other creature in the Cosmos at the very least knows about us. Many want something from us, be it our planet or our “unique” properties or perhaps our bodies upon which to dine. And while our fictional human heroes do learn something as they trek the galaxy, it often turns out that the aliens they encounter were in greater need of our species whether they knew it or not despite having evolved in a totally alien world – though of course these “alien” planets often end up resembling Southern California.

The Starship and Human Destiny

Another trend that could have equally problematic consequences is the view that either humanity is alone in the galaxy in regards to highly intelligent beings, or that there are a few others around but they are so far away as to be inconsequential. This trend has wavered back and forth since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers who first conceived of the concept. Currently the idea of many others in the galaxy and beyond appears to be on the wane due ironically to the decades of searches for alien minds and planets already conducted and underway. There are those who feel that since the various SETI programs in existence since 1960 have not detected any signals of artificial extraterrestrial origin, then there must either be no one else or no one nearby. However, if most of these folks appreciated how sporadic and limited most SETI programs have been for most of the last half century and how little of the cosmic playing field these searches have examined, they would better understand that it is far too early to decide how crowded or empty our galaxy truly is.

As it is, certain groups take it as a given that we must send out our starships full of human crews to explore and colonize the galaxy, especially those worlds which may be like our Earth. I recently witnessed this attitude while watching a segment on NASA Television about searching for Earthlike planets. The narrator boldly declared that the destiny of finding a planet similar to ours beyond our Sol system was to one day colonize it. There was no mention of what might happen to the life forms that would presumably already be on a world like Earth or how any intelligences there might feel about suddenly having new neighbors who had no intention of leaving any time soon. I have also seen this same attitude elsewhere, such as with the Ultimate Project, a plan to send one million humans in a giant multigenerational star vessel to a nearby system with an Earthlike planet to colonize it. As for the question of what would happen if a society already occupied that world, the answer was that we should know if intelligent beings live on such a planet before the mission heads out and the Ultimate Project ship would be send to another Earthlike planet that did not seem to have any smart occupants.

In one sense this does not sound any less fraught with hazards than the RDA company in Avatar with its intentions to take what it needs from Pandora regardless of the natives’ wishes. It certainly smacks of a very young species that thinks it is entitled to whatever it needs wherever that might be. One has to wonder if there are other intelligences in a similar situation thinking the same thing about the galaxy. I wonder what might happen when those two species meet up?

Perhaps I am being overly concerned about a mindset and even a species that will not exist as it currently does in the coming centuries when we are ready to voyage into the galaxy. I have my doubts that the humans depicted in Avatar will still exist in quite the same way by the time we could send our children to Alpha Centauri. Future generations will be bemused at how Hollywood assumed their ancestors from the early Twenty-First Century could even presume that they could fly to the stars with their limited knowledge, lack of bodily and mental enhancements, and painfully obsolete technology.

A Realistic Interstellar Scenario

I must presume that when we do go to the stars, we will have been able to learn enough from the vicinity of Earth to know where to aim our ships and how to approach these new worlds, especially if they are occupied with living beings. Of course I am also presuming that such missions will be done for scientific purposes, when human society has already shown that many of their endeavors are done for political and financial purposes, the Apollo manned lunar missions being a prime example. In that sense, while Avatar is probably not an accurate depiction of humanity’s conquest of the galaxy, nor will we be able maintain some kind of Federation or Galactic Empire as so many science fiction stories contain due in large part to the ability to achieve faster than light (FTL) travel, our early interstellar missions may not be purely scientific in nature. After all, they will cost a lot of money and scientific institutions, especially those dedicated to astronomy and space exploration, are usually not the recipients of the lion’s share of funding.

Assuming human civilization does not collapse or find itself under an iron-fisted totalitarian rule that restricts space utilization, I do foresee the day when our species colonizes the Sol system. This will require a stable infrastructure and lots of funding, which will probably come from new industries that made an early hold on the vast wealth in resources space has to offer. Their customers will be as much if not more off Earth as on our planet. As in the days when Europeans realized there were whole new continents to exploit and start new lives on, our descendants will do the same with the Sol system, and while they may be different in certain ways from us, they may still maintain similar motives as living, intelligent beings. Among these traits will be a desire to exist in a way favorable to them.

This is where I see our first potential human explorers into the galaxy not being the noble and high-minded astronauts we are used to with our current space program, but members of groups that want to live out their lives away from the pressures of the bulk of human society. At first they will likely aim for the relatively easy targets such as the comets at the edge of the Sol system. But some of them will not be satisfied until they have left our system entirely so that our sun becomes just another star in the night sky. These are the folks who may attempt to venture to and colonize those other Earthlike worlds, even if it takes them many centuries to reach those planets. It is probable that no one will be able to regulate every pioneer heading off into the Milky Way.

And this is my final point: We cannot stop human migrations to other worlds unless our whole species becomes extinct – or worse, that we let our fears and ignorance keep us from doing so. I have the feeling that life has played out this game of moving to new places and encountering other beings since the very first time an organism appeared somewhere in the Universe. As has happened on Earth for the last four billion years, species have come and gone but life on this planet has remained, as robust and diverse as it probably ever has been.

This is why we need to explore the stars as a civilized society: With as much caution as we can, but knowing that some members of our kind may strike out blindly into the darkness, stirring up who knows what. We need to recognize and prepare for the fact that we are very small parts of an immense reality that has allowed us to exist for reasons that could be sheer luck or because others may recognize our youth and have kept us safe as if in a preserve. Or maybe because they just haven’t found us yet. I do know one thing: While it may be nice to be as connected as the Na’vi are to the rest of the life on their world and have all their needs taken care of, I do not want our species left vulnerable to the rest of the Universe, be it a comet threatening destruction, or an alien intelligence that wants our system, or the eventual end of Sol several billion years from now. I am pretty sure that Eywa does not have a space escape plan for the Na’vi, nor do the Na’vi seem ready on their own for such a change. We on the other hand are aware and have some of the foundations in place to make sure we are not stuck in one place with nowhere to go in case something happens, but we have to finish what we started.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • kurt9 January 16, 2010, 15:05

    I have not seen the film. There is another interpretation of the film that is more valid. The film appears to be a defense of property rights as well as being very anti-war. It is essentially the SF version of the “Kelo v. City of New London” court case:


    This interpretation of the film is very popular in China:


    As far as the issue of barging in and colonizing planets that are inhabited with sentient or other high life forms, I would say the reasonable policy would be to leave these places alone, if they actually exist. Such a policy can be observed at very little cost to our own economic growth and expansion.

    Everything I have read suggests that we are likely alone, making the issue null. However, if there are other planets that are inhabited, we leave these alone and settle places that are not inhabited. There are likely to be very few of these places and races.

    Unless we get lucky and develop a cheap FTL in the near future, we won’t be going to the stars until with have expanded through out our own solar system for a century or two, O’neill style. If we become used to living O’neill style, is it not likely we would seek out solar system with large asteroid and Kuiper belts rather than those with “Earth-like” planets? I think so. We would go to other solar systems to build more O’neill “Hong Kongs” or even larger structures (bishop rings and the like). The O’neill concept offers far greater opportunity for growth and expansion than planetary settlements. I think once we go O”neill, we will not go back.

  • Adam January 16, 2010, 17:35

    Hi kurt9 & all

    Mobile habitats will always be hunting for resources since they have none of their own. O’Neill’s specific solar economy scenario is total bunkum, but habitats may well be the vanguard of human exploration and resource acquisition. One example that illustrates the advantages of large space-protected habitats is access to Jupiter – cosmic ray shielding would provide more than enough protection against the proton flux in Jupiter’s Belts.

    But consider what habitats would require. To avoid catastrophic failure they will need some kind of AI monitoring all the habitat’s systems – including the ecosystem. We may not be a part in a global ecosphere mind yet, but life in space may well force such a necessity upon us.

  • Zen Blade January 16, 2010, 19:04

    From the second paragraph,
    “This attitude of extremes, which Avatar has only exacerbated, will only further reinforce the attitude that humanity has to dump all its civilized trappings and go live in the woods. This was the same “resolution” taken with the final episode of the recent television series Battlestar Galactica. ”

    I just don’t think that this interpretation has legs. It is not a valid argument that there Avatar is spawning some sort of neo-luddite movement, and the argument appears to completely ignore reality. When was the last time you saw a group of 20 year olds (or someone younger) in which none of them had a piece of technology with them? That just does not happen.

    The ending of BSG was forced; it had the hand of god… and that was unfortunate. However, the story is less about the evils of technology and more about the evils of man and the desire for redemption or the desire to start anew (as presented all too often by religion). Many of the cylons remained with the humans to start anew, and you can argue that although the series employs a technological enemy, the series is not a tech-driven series. It is a series about the human condition.

    This aside, I am not at all sure what significant part of the human population wants to go “back to nature”… The most anti-science parts of modern society, are indeed the most religious, but in America they want their cars, they want their technology, they just don’t want the scientists. They are under the false belief that things were “easier” and “better” back when they were a child (the Daily show recently had a segment with John Oliver that highlighted this idiocy). And many of the most “back to nature” parts of society are actually willing to listen to what the scientists say; these individuals just want fewer corporations and less greed.

    So again, I submit that one’s personal opinions on the state of the world are far more relevant to one’s interpretation of what values Avatar is purportedly pushing rather than what actually occurred in the movie. An interpretation against greed and against selfishness, an interpretation in favor of community and understanding is far more believable.
    So, rather than creating strawmen that we must then destroy, why not just skip the strawman and make your argument.

    -Zen Blade

  • Peter January 16, 2010, 19:55

    Agreed. To be practical, an interstellar migration would involve billions of people, and it goes against human nature to live in only artificial habitats. Even if it was completely safe, I can’t imagine more than 1% wanting to live somewhere in the solar system other than earth. Most of the science for our system has already been done, and colonization would be pointless.

  • kurt9 January 16, 2010, 20:33

    “Mobile habitats will always be hunting for resources since they have none of their own.” There are far more resources that are far more accessible in free space then in gravity wells. Remember that the whole concept of space colonization was driven by the desire to get out of gravity wells, not just to find other gravity wells to climb back down into.

    Yes, the original solar economy based O’neill scenario is probably unfeasible. Freeman Dyson pointed this out in 1981. I don’t think such habitats require an AI, but they do need a biomeme based on integrated synthetic biology. Since the bio-sciences are the fastest growing technical field right now, I see no reason why this would not be possible, say, by mid century or shortly after. In terms of catastrophic failure, a habitat in free space is no different than a habitat based on a surface of an inhospitable planet (which is all planets other than the Earth discovered to date). Assuming FTL is not possible, we will most certainly develop the cost effective technology to fabricate orbital space habitats long before we even consider going to the stars. Indeed, without an FTL, such technology will be necessary to go to the stars.

  • kurt9 January 16, 2010, 20:38

    Even with appropriate shielding, the Jovian system may be off limits to human habitation. The radiation there is so enormous that even rad-hardened electronics risk being fried in that system. I think the Jovian system will be essentially off-limits to humanity. The Saturn system will be available, though. I think the long term action will be in Kuiper belt.

    Socially, political, and economically; space habitats will resemble any successful Earth-based city-state, like Hong Kong and Singapore. They will have the same intense urbanization as well (I have spent much time in both places). Indeed, I consider these two city-states as social/political models for future space habitats.

  • Marcel F. Williams January 16, 2010, 23:28

    As far as the Earth’s environment is concerned, it has never been about the advancement of human technology. Its always been about the growth of human population in relation to resources. Technology is probably the only thing that has prevented our massively growing population from totally destroying the Earth’s ecology. Also, those societies on Earth with the most advanced technologies tend to have the slowest population growth.

  • Ronald January 17, 2010, 7:27

    “the original solar economy based O’neill scenario is probably unfeasible”
    “habitat in free space is no different than a habitat based on a surface of an inhospitable planet ”
    “Assuming FTL is not possible, we will most certainly develop the cost effective technology to fabricate orbital space habitats long before we even consider going to the stars. Indeed, without an FTL, such technology will be necessary to go to the stars”
    “space habitats will resemble any successful Earth-based city-state, like Hong Kong and Singapore. They will have the same intense urbanization as well (I have spent much time in both places). Indeed, I consider these two city-states as social/political models for future space habitats”

    As I have pointed out before, to any and every small habitat similar ecological laws of island biogeography apply, among them that the smaller the habitat, the more prone it is to stochastic (chance) extinction events (“s..t happens”). In fact this area/extinction relationship, like area/species relationship, is exponential. And the extinction chance increases (linearly) with exposure time. This applies to islands, nature reserves, mountains, and any isolated habitat.

    This also means, that relatively small, but complex, (artificial) ecosystems, such as O’Neill habitats or any similar space colonies, will be extremely prone to catastrophy in the long term. And this does not yet even take the human mindset into consideration. I find it very hard to believe that intelligent primates like us will ever be able to stay mentally and socially healthy and happy on a lifelong cruise in a very confined and unnatural habitat floating through space, without the personal hope and prospective ever to reach a planetary destination during ones lifetime.

    Moreover, cities here on earth can never sustain themselves, but always depend on (very) large areas to supply their needs. Likewise, a space colony would be very unlikely to ever be fully self-supporting in the long run, but will depend on external resource supply, even with the most efficient ways of recycling.

    I am sorry to be the party-pooper here, but I strongly believe that, if we ever want to make it to the stars, we’ll have to go (very) fast, limiting our mental and physical exposure to space to a reasonable minimum, possibly in combination with some kind of ‘suspended animation’ of artificial hibernation/sleep state.

    And the idea that humans (or any biological derivative thereof even remotely recognizable as humanoid) will ever be *permanently* living in confined artificial space habitats (like Kuiper belt objects) is outright ludicrous to me, and not only for the above-mentioned biogeographical reason. Call me old-fashioned or a romantic, but I believe that anything remotely human will always long for a planet, just like a fish longs for the deep blue sea.

  • T_U_T January 17, 2010, 7:50

    Most of the science for our system has already been done, and colonization would be pointless.

    care to support such a statement ?

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) January 17, 2010, 10:00

    “And the idea that humans (or any biological derivative thereof even remotely recognizable as humanoid) will ever be *permanently* living in confined artificial space habitats (like Kuiper belt objects) is outright ludicrous to me,”

    Agreed. They won’t be living in *confined* space habitats. The space habitats that the bulk of humanity will be living in will be – probably – Halo’s, Spirals, and Dyson Trees. There’s enough resources available that they don’t need to be confined. A fully developed Dyson Tree on a comet 1km across should provide plenty of living space for the small population it will likely support. Once humans get biological immortality, I imagine significant portions of humanity will choose to be infertile, avoiding a hypermalthusian catastrophe in such small habitats. I forsee a habitat with 100s of cubic kilometers of forest to be supporting quite a small population – probably around 30-50 – living comunally. Others will live in larger trees, which support a lot larger populations, while still others will choose spirals (sphere shaped and lit by a central fusion engine, spun for gravity) and Halo’s.

  • ad January 17, 2010, 10:16

    As in the days when Europeans realized there were whole new continents to exploit and start new lives on

    The continents they settled on were generally very similar to the one they had left. There were not that many settlements in northern Canada, for example.

    And there still are not.

    I don’t see why there should be any rush to colonise any off-Earth location until after we have colonised the Sahara, the Antarctic ice-shelf, the continental shelf, etc. And I do not see much desire to colonise any of those locations.

  • SpaceGhoti January 17, 2010, 12:05

    Consider: the message of the movie wasn’t that progress is bad or that technology is evil. The message of the movie was that progress is bad when it is pursued at all costs, and technology is a tool that can be used for good or evil depending on who wields it. The good guys used technology to help the natives, just like the bad guys used technology to force their will on the natives.

    It was never about the evils of progress. It was about the evil of raping the land and denying the rights of natives because they happened to sit on top of something you deem valuable. They were in such a hurry to gain profit, they weren’t willing to wait and find a peaceful means of negotiating with the natives. “You have three months. Then we burn them out.”

  • T_U_T January 17, 2010, 12:09

    After we have colonised the Sahara, the Antarctic ice-shelf, the continental shelf, etc.

    In the case you have missed it, sahara has been colonized a few dozen of thousands of years ago, there are quite a few human outposts in antarctic, and the bottom of the sea is more hostile to humans than the vacuum of space ( you can survive for 90 seconds in the vacuum but 30 MPa at the ocean bottom will kill you within milliseconds )

  • BC January 17, 2010, 12:19

    This is the fourth post on this blog about Avatar. Can we please move on? It’s just another Hollywood movie for crying out loud!

  • Eniac January 17, 2010, 14:24

    I think ad has a very good point. There are essentially three interlocked reasons why people went for the unknown lands across the ocean: 1) to find out what is there (explorers), 2) to start a new life (settlers), and 3) those lands were better than the ones at home (or so it was said: gold, fertile land, etc…). Add to that, perhaps: 4) The trip took a few weeks, and could be paid for by ones life savings.

    None of these reasons seem to apply anymore. We explore with telescopes and probes, now. People are much better off, relatively speaking, and less likely to leave their lives behind for the unknown. There are no “lands”, much less better ones. And space travel is orders of magnitudes longer and more expensive than with even the most primitive ships.

    The unobtanium of Avatar strikes one as contrived, because we have long moved on from an economy focussed on creating material wealth (farming and manufacturing) to one focussed exclusively on our own bodies and minds (health care and entertainment). Farming is now only a few percent of GPA, and manufacturing is rapidly headed the same way. The substance we most fight about can be had for $80 a barrel, and even at that price can be profitably replaced by other, existing technologies. To suppose that any mere material substance could fetch what Cameron is supposing for unobtainium seems quite ludicrous. Gold did it for the old explorers, but I do not see any realistic equivalent, nowadays. There is no unobtainium, and I think Cameron was well aware of that, hence the name….

    However contrived the unobtainium, though, you can see how he was stuck with it for lack of a more likely explanation for the existence of a colony on Pandora. I am afraid the best we can hope for is people going to space out of boredom. Adventurers and Tourists, some of whom eventually stay. Any work that will be done will be in health care and entertainment, in a wider sense that includes science and exploration. For the most part, it will follow people into space, rather than the other way around.

  • John January 17, 2010, 14:37

    While various commentators have ascribed differing interpretations to the film, some unjustified in my opinion (“defense of property rights”, please), it is important to note Cameron’s own assessment of his film:
    EW: “’Avatar’ is the perfect eco-terrorism recruiting tool.”
    JC: “Good, good. I like that one. I consider that a positive review. I believe in ecoterrorism.”
    In other words, Cameron drove directly into the mud of what Jean-Francois Ravel calls “the lyricism of Third World mythology,” and kept spinning his wheels to the tune of ” . . . brutal Europeans conquering innocent native peoples, the latter often depicted as ‘living in harmony with nature.'” [From Thomas Sowell’s, Intellectuals and Society.]
    To those concerned about human survival, forget about “destiny,” “Avatar” is boring and unhelpful. We’ve been there, done that, and really need to move on, but for those who are keen on the evil-white-guy-morphic view of humanity, as least check out Terrence Malick’s “A New World.” That movie gives a far more humane and balanced perspective on the early colonization of America.

  • John January 17, 2010, 14:39

    EW: “’Avatar’ is the perfect eco-terrorism recruiting tool.”
    JC: “Good, good. I like that one. I consider that a positive review. I believe in ecoterrorism.”
    I won’t add anything more because I am forbidden to add anything more: “duplicate comment detected,” indeed.

  • kurt9 January 17, 2010, 14:55


    The space colonies do not need to be 100% recycling with no loss of material. They will be located near asteroids and other small bodies that will provide lots and lots of external resources for the habitats. If you run out of asteroid or comet, you can always go out and bring another one back to your habitat. There are at least 70,000 KBO’s that are 100 kilometer or more in diameter. This is enough resource to provide for a cluster of space settlements for millions of years. Also, there will not be just one habitat, but clusters of them, freely trading and interacting with them, thus providing redundancy in case one of the settlements suffers any kind of failure. Your argument about a catastrophic failure is equally applicable to any surface settlement on an inhospitable planet. Any planetary surface settlement will need the same kind of multiple settlements for redundancy. I fail to see how any planetary surface settlement (like Mars) would be any less vulnerable to catastrophic failure than a habitat in free space.

    Also, space habitats can be quite large. Nanostructured materials such as fullerines can make structures far larger than those envisioned by Gerard O’neill in the 1970’s. A Bishop ring would have a land area comparable to India.

    Unless you have an Earth-like garden planet, planetary surface settlement offers no advantages over settlements in free space. Indeed, they offer a significant disadvantage in that you have to climb in and out of a gravity well to get in and out of them. Also, we haven’t found any habitable exoplanets anyways. We speculate endlessly about them in this blog. But there is no guarantee that they even exist. The best case scenario postulates that one out of every ten sun-like stars (G’s and high K’s) might have a habitable planet. I think this is optimistic. I think maybe one out of a hundred sun-like stars will have an Earth-like planet. That means the nearest Earth-like planet is probably 100 lys away and that there are not many of them compared to all of the stars in the sky. So, unless we get that FTL (Heim Theory is the only possibility for this), man’s future in space is going to be free space habitats. There’s no other option.

    Ronald, your planetary chauvinism is showing. As an American, you may long for the wide open spaces of a planetary surface. But I can assure you that the East and South Asian people are quite used to and comfortable living in highly urbanized environments and their population is ten times ours. I think the Asians would take to O’neill living like a fish to water.

  • Jim Vincent January 17, 2010, 15:19

    There was an interesting speculation by a commentator that Eywa & the peculiarly-specific interconnectedness of the Na’vi with creatures as different as the sky & land creatures is indeed by design; that what we see if the remnants of a past highly advanced civilization (the crumbling ruins at the sacred grove reinforce this feeling). Echoes of Leela and the Sevateem for all you Dr Who fans. So it may not actually be as cut & dried Tech vs Nature after all. So too, yes, the Na’vi DO seem very much like us, don’t they? Even to things like bipedalism, bilateral symmetry, digits, etc. To be sure all this makes it easier for the audience to deal with – you said it yourself with SOLARIS: hard SF can be @%@%$ difficult to make into good cinema, even stories like RAMA deal mainly with the humans’ reaction to it, etc.

    Given such a putatedly hostile environment, even when you are living with it as best you can, having a goodly amount of warriors around seems wise. We don’t see much of Na’vi agriculture, so hunter/gathering may be how they operate. There is more to fight than each other (though I’d expect they do that too otherwise the tribes might be more united). So too there are plenty of counterparts on each side – for example, who among the Na’vi would not fight every bit as hard & implacably as the Colonel if they thought their people threatened? Both Grace & they value understanding & sharing, if only to avoid “friction” and so on.

    SpaceGhoti is right – A major message is about the *misuse* of technology.
    The very existence of characters like Grace & Sully point that humans aren’t inherently evil or divorced from the world around them, but when we let greed & fear trump our sense and empathy, we can be. Look on human history, and not just Europeans in America, and tell me this isn’t true.

    BC says “It’s just another Hollywood movie for crying out loud!” but where space is concerned, there’s no such thing., Surely we learned in the past few decades. They not only reflect the attitude of people towards space & science & our place within each, but help shape it. So it is well worth our time to explore major influences on those attitudes and ideas because they will be coming back over and over.

    No wonder this film sparks such discussions, for it touches on large issues that astronomy and space travel also bring up , about who we are and what destiny we will make for ourselves. They are necessary discussions, no matter what sparks them.

  • Eniac January 17, 2010, 15:24

    Ooops, that was suppossed to be GDP, not GPA… :)

  • Eniac January 17, 2010, 16:24

    So, unless we get that FTL (Heim Theory is the only possibility for this),

    A strong statement. It implies both that “Heim Theory” has merit, and that none of its brethren exotic theories do. I think the evidence is rather thin on both counts.

  • russ January 17, 2010, 16:53

    I didn’t take the film as having an anti-technology message, but an anti-imperialism / anti-colonialism message. There were, after all, the good guys who used technology to try to help the natives.

  • spaceman January 18, 2010, 2:10

    I just don’t see a future in which many different groups of pioneers make their own way out into the galaxy unless what they are doing is making use of spaceflight technologies already put into place by large institutions. How will they develop the technology to travel through and survive for longs periods of time in deep space independent of large institutions?

  • Ronald January 18, 2010, 4:36

    Eniac: “To suppose that any mere material substance could fetch what Cameron is supposing for unobtainium seems quite ludicrous. Gold did it for the old explorers, but I do not see any realistic equivalent, nowadays”.

    The only space equivalent that I can think of would be He-3, for future use in nuclear fusion plants. Particularly from Uranus, maybe Saturn. It could and would be done by small automated extraction and refinement ‘factories’. So, still no human space colonization needed for that either. Unless we would want to establish a kind of service and repair station, a launch base, or factory on Titan, but I don’t really see the need for that either.

  • tesh January 18, 2010, 4:37

    “This is the fourth post on this blog about Avatar. Can we please move on? It’s just another Hollywood movie for crying out loud!”

    I have to agree with BC. This is getting very tired. If anything I found it a recruiting film for the DOD and the arms manufacturing industry. Lots of cool toys that made lot of loud bangs. It had very little to do with space travel and defing/determining the reasons for space travel.

    Space cannot be profitable and probably never will be. As soon as the word “profit” comes into framing an arguement for space travel, it is a no goer. Space has to be something that the governments do. Governments have to govern and say that space has to be done, and that is that.

  • Ronald January 18, 2010, 6:57

    kurt9 January 17, 2010 at 14:55;

    kurt9, thanks for your comment, I really enjoyed it (as usual) and took some time to ponder it.

    First of all your last comment made me smile: “Ronald, your planetary chauvinism is showing. As an American, you may long for the wide open spaces of a planetary surface.”

    I am not an American, but European (Dutch, used to high population density and very intensive land use), however, I will take that as a compliment anyway ;-) I lived and worked in the US, though, and still have family there and in Canada, so I do know North America rather well. The internet has created a global village and Paul Gilster is in the process of creating a galactic one ;-)
    And yes, I readily admit my planetary chauvinism, or should we call it innate bias, but all the same I am convinced that by far most planetary creatures will share that with me :-)

    Substantively now, concerning the plusses and minuses of artificial space habitats compared with planets: that is indeed not an easy issue to judge and generalize about, because we do not yet know all future technological possibilities. I admit that ruling out such habitats could be like ruling out transatlantic flights in the early 20th century. I will also not question your statement about potential size of such space constructions, you surely know more about this than I do.

    Your first paragraph is the most relevant here, and you raise a very important issue, which deserves further fundamental research (or identification and study of already existing research results): the trade-off of risk spreading versus risk enhancement, or in other words, the (dis)advantages of an archipelago versus a large continent. I suspect that this will very much depend on the kind of risk we are considering. If a global risk (pandemic, thermonuclear war, …), yes, indeed a large fleet of scattered space habitats might be a (temporary) advantage (like some pacific islands escaped the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919).

    However, if we limit ourselves to the availability and depletion of vital resources, I do not agree. Even 100,000 KBO of roughly 100 km diameter would total only about 10% of the volume of the earth, or about the volume of Mars. And the usability of their content remains to be seen, many (most?)may largely consist of water, methane and ammonia. Not entirely useless, but these materials can be obtained much closer to home and in even much greater abundance.
    And the entire asteroid belt has a smaller total mass than our moon. Personally I think that these belts are nowadays often grossly overrated in futuristic scenario’s (to some this may sound like cursing in church).

    Ultimately, it will, again, be a trade-off of required investment in resources (energy!) versus return on investment. And it is exactly here I suspect, that the scattered asteroids/KBO’s etc. will not perform too well, somewhat comparable to desert nomads wandering from oasis tot oasis versus the civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, China, etc.

    I fully agree with you that a planetary surface settlement (on an inhospitable planet requiring comprehensive terraforming) could be about as prone to catastrophe and extinction as a ‘free space habitat’ and would also require multiple settlement for redundancy. However, the essential difference is, that, in case of such a catastrophe, any required resources for reconstruction would be abundantly available nearby, and hence the efforts and investments needed for rebuilding such settlements would most probably be vastly smaller.

    Your paragraph about the possible rarity of habitable earthlike planets: of course this remains speculation up to this day, but we both know that the present absence of discovered (small) earthlike planets is still a matter of technical limitations, and not of physical rarity.

    Furthermore, habitability is a relative concept, also depending on technology and (genetic) adaptation of organisms. Inhabited (higher-life-bearing) earthlike planets, the so-called garden variety (Pandora!), may be relatively rare (and should then be treated with the utmost respect and caution anyway), but potentially habitable, (relatively) easily terraformable earthlike planets (i.e. presence of water, primeval atmosphere, agreeable gravity and temperature, etc.), are likely to be much more common. The (near) future will tell.

    I also do not see a major objection against the ‘gravity well’ of planets like Mars. Any civilization able to settle and transform KBO’s will surely be able to deal with that minor nuisance, and again, it is all a matter of return on investment.

    Finally, even most Asians choose for suburbia with lush gardens, when they get the chance (prosperity) for it. Their living in huge and densely packed concentrations is an adaptation out of economic necessity rather than a social preference. We humans haven’t diverged that much since we left the East-African savannas, and we still prefer the parks landscape.

    I do, however, fully agree with you, that the discussion about the exact prevalence of earthlike planets, and whether the nearest one is a few tens or some hundred ly away, will probably remain academic without some kind of FTL (again, cursing in church to some), the only exception possibly (hopefully) being Alpha Centauri, since it could be reached in decades.

    Precisely for that reason I believe that, indeed, Mars will be settled and transformed first, and not the KB.

    As a minor side note: when it comes to hope for FTL, there isn’t just Heim and its off-shoots Dröscher and Häuser, but also Tajmar, Chiao, …

  • Darrell E January 18, 2010, 13:12

    So many people so sure that their predictions of what the future WILL be like are obviously true, and just as sure that those other ideas are obviously wrong. I always try to keep in mind just how pathetically low the accuracy rate of even the best minds of the human race is when it comes to predictions about the future. It is genuinely useful to argue about these things, but we should not hold on to our convictions too tightly because they are almost certainly wrong, or at least not entirely accurate.

  • Dave January 18, 2010, 14:56
  • ljk January 19, 2010, 23:23

    Avatar: A Stunning New World That NASA Continues to Ignore


    “James Cameron’s “Avatar” has continued to break box office records, has won the Golden Globe Awards for “best picture” and “best director”, and is now headed for the Oscars. There is clearly something that the public enjoys about “Avatar”.

    At a time when NASA needs to re-exert its relevance to decision makers and the public, you’d think that there would be some effort to tap this interest in a movie about the wonders of extrasolar planets, astrobiology, and what may lay out there as we explore space – rendered in unparalleled detail and believability.

    So, how did NASA capitalize on this phenomenon? Answer: It didn’t.”

  • ljk January 19, 2010, 23:50

    BC said on January 17, 2010 at 12:19:

    “This is the fourth post on this blog about Avatar. Can we please move on? It’s just another Hollywood movie for crying out loud!

    First – They were originally two articles split into four parts for easier
    mental digestion.

    Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakqual was just a movie. Avatar,
    flaws and all, is much more than that.

    And if that doesn’t work, I direct you and anyone else who feels this way
    to what is now known as Moff’s Law:


  • Athena Andreadis January 20, 2010, 11:32

    Centauri Dreams, given its stated objectives (and the state of our knowledge) focuses on topics to the left half of the Drake equation. In turn, this largely determines the interests and mindsets of its visitors.

    When I gave a talk at APL (the East Coast equivalent of JPL), I discussed — not surprisingly — the biological, sociological and ethical implications of crewed space travel and planetary settlement, riffing on my Making Aliens article series. The same issues are prominent in Avatar, even though Cameron treats them with zero originality and less than zero nuancing.

    At the end of the talk, one of my hosts (Cassini team leader Tom Krimigis) remarked: “You brought up all these issues that we never contemplate. We’re engineers, we just think of the launches.” I replied that these issues might appear squishy but they’re vital if APL plans to remain relevant. Making the rockets is only the prelude to the opera. Otherwise, NASA might as well be reciting the Tom Lehrer song:

    “Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?
    That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

    It’s almost comforting to concentrate on the propulsion aspects of space travel. The dilemmas that will confront long-term space exploration are almost too immense to contemplate — and they fall squarely in domains that make people uncomfortable. Everyone who read my comments on Avatar knows that I consider the movie bad art and worse outlook, for reasons that I explain at some length in two articles. However, I think that the discussions it sparked on this site are probably the most interesting in its history.

    We can go back to discussing FTL, Bussard ramjets and Alcubierre drives (all, incidentally, less likely than the neuronal “USBs” shown in Avatar). For one, it’s easier to remain calm and polite while discussing them. For another, they are an indispensable part of launching. But if we want humanity to ever take to the stars, we “must risk something that matters.” And that may include heated discussions of issues beyond lists of exoplanets and nifty rockets.

  • ljk January 20, 2010, 23:46

    Nope, Avatar is just another Hollywood film having no effect on the
    populace whatsoever:


    Just like only the really big standout comets get to be the ones that herald
    the end of humankind or are the ones followed by alien spaceships, while all
    the other much fainter comets are ignored.

  • ljk January 20, 2010, 23:53

    In regards to Athena’s post on looking past the nuts and bolts of a space
    mission, even those technical aspects have not been getting the treatment
    they should if NASA and other space agencies are serious about a permanent
    human presence in space, especially for those far away ventures.

    For example, the device on the ISS that turns urine into drinking water
    recently became clogged due to high concentrations of calcium buildup:


    While not everything can be accounted for and the device was tested on
    the ground, it should have been tested much sooner in the decades-long
    space station programs. Thankfully at least this was detected while in
    LEO and not halfway to Mars, but the problem underlies the numerous
    gaps in understanding the major aspects of human spaceflight. These
    include relationships during long voyages, which NASA continues to be
    very squeamish about.

  • kurt9 January 21, 2010, 0:38

    See, thats the point. no matter what kind of propulsion system we develop, the bio-engineering (both of our own bodies as well as the biospheres for the habitats) has to be developed first. This technology is prerequisite for anything we do in space; orbital space habitats, planetary surface habitats (both here and in other solar systems), or interstellar space craft.

    I think it unlikely that Earth-like planets are common. So, interstellar migration and settlement is likely to be done on the basis of settlement of inhospitable environments (either space colonies or surface colonies on inhospitable planets) Even if they are and we find planets with complex life, I think it probable that such life will be toxic to humans. I do not believe the common assumption that such life would be “so different” as not to be poisonous to humans. At minimum, it will be inedible. Do we really want to wipe out a complex bio-system, just to replace it with our own? The whole environmental movement here since the 1970’s has been about preventing this from happening on Earth. I don’t think we want to do a similar thing to the complex life of another planet. Even if we did do this, it would be very difficult and expensive.

    In any case, without physics breakthroughs (which I think unlikely), we’re not going to the stars anytime soon.

  • ljk January 22, 2010, 14:16

    Lots of good information and links to other sites on Pandoran biology
    at the Biology in Science Fiction blog here:


  • kbd February 15, 2010, 19:45

    If one cannot see a common theme that forever flows out of Hollywood (these days anyway) it’s the theme that the new ogre, the new boogey man, the new nemesis of humankind is – humankind itself; or more distinctly, the scientific, industrial, creative, curious, and questioning aspects of humanity.
    Avatar – aka Dances with Wolves – (and I say this with the fear of being knifed to death in the streets) is just one more hollow expression of this already tired theme.
    (Note that Cameron states that he ‘conceived’ of this idea when he was making Titanic; interestingly Titanic was being made 5 years after dances with Wolves was released . . . . even the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude of the military was there!)
    The stupendous irony being that the Cameron’s of the movie world (and don’t get me wrong – I have enjoyed most of Cameron’s movies; even Avatar simply for its phenomenal use of graphics) know how to tap into a raw nerve of a current paradigm, and then reap zillions from the tapping.
    I take my hat off to that type of marketing prowess.
    Still, one does have to ask: how is it that such a movie has hit such a global raw nerve.
    I think it can be summed up not in a specific way – one would get bogged down on too many nuances that people (particularly youth) have to deal with each day.
    No, I think in a general way people have had to endure 2, 3, 4(!!!???) decades of negative media that forever bombards us with all the negative aspects of our actions, NEVER THE POSITIVE.
    This endless promotion has escalated and escalated until, now, today, we have people who are completely numb to anything save the attraction of an Eden we can never occupy; an Eden that actually destroys all that we hold of value in its promotion; all the while maintaining a quasi-Biblical undertone.
    Whilst, cynically, the producers of such a theme are laughing all the way to the bank with money that the very industrial complex they are attacking in this movie provided them with.
    More so, an impressionable young audience (without any grasp of the concepts of individual rights, the ancillary requirements to maintain them, and completely lacking the conceptual wherewithall to argue for – or against – them) sees these pretty cartoons as a simplistic black and white answer to life.
    One thing is for certain: Avatar has ramped up the stakes; as far as stories go, in what is a corny, almost naive, representation of the functionings of business, military action, and politics while at the same time continuing the universal theme of nihilism (for one’s own species), where Hollywood takes us from here is anybody’s guess.
    One thing though, I won’t hold my breath awaiting the production (and proper interpretation) of Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’.

  • ljk February 15, 2010, 21:29

    “Today on Discovery Enterprise we take an imaginary voyage to the world of Pandora depicted in the motion picture Avatar and look at the possibility of humanity one day taking a very real interstellar odyssey to worlds beyond our solar system.”


  • ljk April 28, 2010, 1:11

    “Avatar” Director James Cameron Follows Box Office Success with Advocacy for Indigenous Struggles

    On the heels of his record-setting Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, the film director James Cameron is taking on a new role as an activist, allying himself with indigenous struggles he says mirror the plot of his film.

    In Avatar, an indigenous species called the Na’vi resists the private military force of a powerful corporation bent on exploiting their planet’s valuable minerals.

    Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté caught up with James Cameron to discuss Avatar, Cameron’s opposition to the Belo Monte in Brazil, last week’s peoples’ climate summit in Bolivia, and his reaction to seeing Avatar embraced by indigenous people worldwide, from the Amazon to the Occupied Territories.



  • ljk May 17, 2010, 22:15

    First Person Experience of Body Transfer in Virtual Reality PLoS one

    May 12, 2010

    European researchers have used immersive virtual reality in the first experiment to show that body ownership can be transferred to a virtual body.

    A first-person perspective of a life-sized virtual human female body that appears to substitute the male subjects’ own bodies was sufficient to generate a body transfer illusion. The results…


  • ljk October 20, 2010, 21:31

    Cameron shows life on Earth in new ‘Avatar’ scene

    New extended DVD version of the hit movie has scenes with Jake Sully on Earth before leaving for Pandora

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Cameron is giving “Avatar” a fresh start.

    Cameron unveiled a new opening scene Tuesday for an extended cut of his sci-fi blockbuster due out Nov. 16 on DVD and Blu-ray disc, the sequence offering a glimpse of life on crowded, polluted 22nd-century Earth, where city dwellers are bombarded by digital ads and wear masks for protection from the foul air.

    The sequence that Cameron showed reporters depicts the dreary existence of his hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), before he’s invited to join the Avatar program on the distant moon Pandora.

    Full article here:


  • ljk December 22, 2011, 16:53