Let's cut the preliminaries: Avatar is the most visually stunning movie I have ever seen. It is a feast of lush alien rain forests, lithe bodies, and the pornography of violence. Cameron invented the cinematic space marine in Aliens, he perfected it in Avatar. But this is supposedly a serious blog about science-fiction, what can we say about Avatar as sci-fi?

In that regards, I am disappointed by Avatar's failure to transcend what David Brooks calls the White Messiah fable. Not because the fable is racists or imperialist, but because it is trite, and because it ends the story too soon. The purpose of the Avatar project in the movie was to bridge human and Navi culture, but that bridge inevitably fails. "There is nothing we have that they want," and the unequal negotiations of imperialism end in violence. Two cultures clash, helicopter gunships explode, and the forces of Nature triumph. The hero leaves his human past behind, gets the girl, and lives happily ever after.

A good enough, if stereotypical story, but can there be an agreement between human and Navi, technology and nature? In Cameron's mythology, science is allied with imperialism, Austugine's research program is a smoke screen for further exploitation, intelligence on the next treasure from Pandora. Try as I might, I cannot find a compromise. Technology is a different form on life, once it has been introduced, evolution takes on a faster pace, one in which older, slower systems are at a disadvantage. The complex ecosystem of Pandora is resilient enough to defeat technology, but I doubt it could integrate it.

This may be a lesson for the Navi, contact with what few (if any) remote aborigines are left, and future space exploration, but human civilization is already part of a technosphere. In this sense, preserving "nature" is a doomed project. Instead, our focus should be on designing a new world.


  1. I was more intrigued by the technology behind the Avatar Program itself. The link between a controller and their Avatar body is completely remote and yet there appears to be no lag time for a sensory signal to be sent back to the controller, processed, and then returned to the Avatar. This almost suggests that the Avatar body contains some of the conscious processes of the controller and is making decisions in parallel with the controller rather than being totally subservient to its will.

    Also the Room temp. Superconducting element, Unobtainium, that is central to the plot is barely given an explanation.

    Despite this, the movie was amazing and I saw it several times.

  2. I mean, "Unobtainium" is just a generic sci-fi plot device, its very name implies an object to which little thought or explanation should be given...

    I still haven't seen avatar though...

  3. And it bothers me that they used that out when they could have given a cool explanation.

  4. ah, so is this better/worse/comparable to "red matter" from last year ?

  5. Well I think it's worse since superconductors do exist and are an outlet for real science to explain some of the physical effects seen on pandora such as the Hallelujah Mountains.

    Red matters functions to explain the formation of stable artificial singularities, which is harder to explain away with real science in a concise manner. Plus I feel Star Trek didn't really care as much as Avatar did when it came to explaining the science behind it.

    Avatar wanted to have more legitimate science backing it up and an explanation of unobtainium as a superconductor could have helped its case.

  6. Great sci-fi doesn't explain, it implies. Now, I totally missed that unobtainium is a room temperature superconductor. I thought it was plain antigravity, which makes absolutely no sense, but who's keeping score.

    Evan has a interesting point about how the Avatar link worked. As best as I could tell, there was a unitary consciousness that was some how transferred between bodies, although it seemed to be more advanced than any kind of radio system.

    As for my nitpicks: All the fauna of Pandora was hexapedal, so why did the Navi only have four limbs? Where did the extra arms go?

  7. http://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/01/11/avatar.movie.blues/index.html

  8. ah, I've finally gotten around to seeing the movie, and I'd say all the tech makes perfect sense & Evan was totally right about the high temperature superconductor thing.

    Avatar is ... a lot like the Alpha Centauri video game actually.

    Unobtanium is a room temperature superconductor that exists to facilitate the planet scale neural network that is Pandora's biosphere. Life on Pandora has acquired the unusual ability to synthesize nano-scale structures. For example, the carbon fiber in the Na'vi bones, or the bulletproof armor of the grazing animals. Unobtanium is in fact a biologically secreted superconducting fiber that underlies the neural and energy connectivity on Pandora. It facilitates a planet scale neural network, as well as transfers of vast amounts of electrical energy. As Evan said, it is also responsible for the levitation dues to paramagnetic effects. If you look, parts of the Hallelujah mountains have formed in arcing tracks which follow magnetic field lines. These magnetic field lines indicate a large dipole moment emanating from the tree of souls, further correlating the superconducting material with elements of the planet scale neural network.

    The avatar technology relies on standard information propagation on light waves. Light signals can travel hundreds of kilometers and back in the time it takes for a single neuron to recover from spiking, so theoretically the latency could be quite low. I don't think the avatar tech could completely transfer consciousness, but it is possible that the avatar could build up a predictive model of the user which would improve accuracy and reaction time.

    I too would like to complain about the Na'vi missing limbs. Also, I wonder if the general lack of disease and parasitic insects is really realistic. It seemed like they mostly had large fauna and predatory species. I suppose the planet scale network could arbitrarily optimize the biosphere through.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Pandora does not need to integrate technology because it has already attained the balance that we continue to seek in technological progress.

    The people are effectively immortal via the planetary neural network. They have a real life bona-fide God to worship, not some hollow social construct.

    The Na'vi show see little evidence of disease or parasitism or other such nuisances which would spur the development of medicine.

    Their primary mode of death seems to be from predation and old age. Predation is a fantastically cheap way to die, and if your attacker is kind it is even fast. Death is fast, and does not hold the horrors of oblivion that it does for humans. There is less need to strive against it.

    Critically, also, the native tribes have not deviated from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Studies suggest that humans were in fact healthier and better nourished before we invented agriculture. Farming and grazing were the first environmental crimes humans committed, Na'vi culture seems to protect them from this mistake.

    Human technological development was spurred by a dissatisfaction with what our native environment provided. Naturally shifting climates remove supplies of food and water, epidemic diseases threaten our species, and parasites are just damn annoying.

    Pandora doesn't need technology because its unrealistic. Every problem which humans have needed to solve through cleverness is solved through fiction.

  11. Thinking about it, agriculture would be very difficult in a region still home to megafauna, and conversely, we wouldn't need agriculture till all the megafauna had been eliminated. Pandoran predators are just one component in a resilient and tough network capable of repelling any external change, including spacecraft.