Tue
Dec 22 2009 1:00pm

Fantasy vs. science fiction: James Cameron’s Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar: the most immersive and visually compelling SF movie ever made, but after its stunning first act, little more than a hackneyed remake of Dances With Wolves. (And like DWW, simultaneously anti-colonialist and a classic eye-rolling example of what James Nicoll calls the What These People Need Is A Honky subgenre.) That at least seems to be the evolving conventional wisdom.

I’m not saying that wisdom is wrong, exactly. When I walked out I had the same reaction that I did to Titanic: while Cameron may well be the greatest director alive, somewhere along the way his writing chops went walkabout. I stand by that. But I also hereby suggest that there is more going on on Pandora than meets the 3-D glasses, and that Avatar is not the movie that most people seem to think it is.

On one level Avatar is about a greedy, industrialized technological society that strip-mines and bulldozes vs. an enlightened pastoral society that is One With Nature and its fierce beauty. That’s true. But on another, it is nothing less than an SF movie about SF itself. Specifically, it is a visceral dramatization of the conflict between fantasy and science fiction.

Look at the visual tropes on either side. We begin in a zero-G environment, in a starship almost visually identical to that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the high-water mark of cinematic science fiction. Attached to it are recognizable space shuttles, code for the science fiction future is now to anyone who lived through the 80s. There are battle mechs, gunships, transparent tablet computers festooned with medical imagery, cryogenic space travel. The humans are Science Fiction.

But when we get into Pandora proper, what do we find? Pointy-eared deadly archers in harmony with nature who live in trees. Maybe that says Native Americans to many, but to me (and anyone who’s read Tolkien) it also screams elves! Elves who ride dragons, no less—through the fantasyland Floating Mountains of Pandora, the existence of which is never rationalized—and who commune with the dead spirits of the elders through their World-Tree. The Na’vi are clearly Fantasy.

Avatar’s story, then, is about the battle between fantasy and science fiction, and the ultimate triumph of fantasy. That’s what justifies its literal deus ex machina ending. (Not much else would.) Science fiction has every advantage, but fantasy wins because ultimately it is numinous, and has incomprehensible powers on its side.

Science fiction is about the known and the possible, a world that grows from our own imperfect present. Here it grows into a “grim meathook future,” as Charles Stross would say, in which Earth is constantly at war, severed spines can only be repaired for those who can afford it, and beauty must be killdozed for the sake of unobtainium. (Unobtainium! C’mon, people, how obvious a hint do you want?)

Beauty, discovery, exploration, wonder—those are mere adjuncts to this science fiction future, means rather than ends, and ultimately irrelevant compared to the conquest of all that is known. But fantasy, like storytelling itself, is about beauty and emotion and wonder; and because fantasy is numinous and unknowable, its sense of wonder is unquenchable. That’s why it must ultimately win, whether in Avatar or on bookstore shelves.

At the end of the film one character actually transforms from human to Na’vi—in other words, moves from the world of science fiction to that of fantasy. Why is this the obvious Hollywood ending? Why does it please the crowd? In part because historically, science fiction tends towards dystopia, and fantasy towards utopia; in part because the joys of fantasy are more obvious than the joys of science fiction (riding a dragon may not be easier than building a starship, but it’s certainly simpler); but ultimately, I think it’s because most of us yearn for the numinous, for the all-powerful and ultimately incomprehensible, whether it be in a church, a mosque, or projected in 3-D upon the silver screen.


Jon Evans is the author of several international thrillers, including Dark Places and Invisible Armies, and the forthcoming Vertigo graphic novel The Executor. He also occasionally pretends to be a swashbuckling international journalist. His epic fantasy squirrel novel Beasts of New York is freely available online under a Creative Commons license.

49 comments
JeffV
1. JeffV
With all due respect, I don't buy it. There most definitely is science at work--an alien biology in which the ecosystem is more interconnected than our own, to the point of almost being self-aware. But, for me, the movie clearly states this. The imagery may evoke scienti-fantasy, but it's clear that the filmmakers and the characters think in terms of a network that is scientific in nature.

The depictions of the "elves" is so "noble savage" I was throwing up in my mouth a little. If the Earth characters are cliches, the aliens are portrayed as completely undifferentiated from one another, and clearly harken back to the worst hackneyed portrayals in movies of Native American and even African characters. They are denied individuality.

Nor does the movie move beyong the obvious with the biology and the ecology. It would be much more interesting if in exploring the society it'd turned out they were in control of their environment, in control of the trees, and that although appearing humanoid were entirely *different* than humans. Instead, they're clearly symbolic...and it's, as I say, a hackneyed symbolism. Not to mention how ridiculously Cameron rehashes characters and ideas from Aliens 2. At this point, he's eating his own molted skin.

I reached my full quota of stupid with this movie, and it's made me not want to go to another big-budget Hollywood SF movie for a good long while.

Meanwhile, some idiots in the theater were actually crying at parts of the movie toward the end, which I find inexplicable.
Paul Howard
2. DrakBibliophile
"historically, science fiction tends towards dystopia"?

I've read plenty of Science Fiction that doesn't deal with dystopias.

Sure there's "if this goes on" types of SF that create dystopias but those are more warnings of what might happen.

Now Movie SF often tends toward dystopias but that IMO has more to do with the mind-set of the movie makers toward technology than anything to do with SF itself.

On the other hand, you've given me more reasons to avoid this movie.
JeffV
3. Nick Mamatas
Given that human beings can grow Na'vi in big tanks and that the avatars are not just Na'vi-shaped vehicles but have all the abilities of the Na'vi, including USB connectors in their ponytails that can hook up to anything, boiling the Na'vi down to a genre fantasy construct doesn't work.

Now the Na'vi are a fantasy for a number of reasons, in that the culture is essentially perfect (there's no penalty for whatsername breaking her arranged marriage agreement; try doing that in Pakistan today, or even rural Greece) that they are made up of clans that are not clannish at all, and that despite radically different worldviews and social structures are deeply familiar with twenty-first century bits of social psychology (individualistic notions of trust and betrayal come immediately to mind), but that's a social fantasy of the audience, not a genre fantasy of literature, being fulfilled.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
Nit: "What These People Need Is A Honky" was coined by a woman who goes by Vito Excalibur for a Wiscon panel; the phrase has since gained widespread usage. Unlike another famous phrase, it was not coined by James Nicoll.
JeffV
5. Kadere
I think you've just stretched that to the point of absurdity. Just because a movie's bad doesn't mean you have to defend it.
Jason Ramboz
6. jramboz
I think your fundamental premise regarding SF and Fantasy is flawed. Examples are numerous, but off the top of my head I'd especially hold up Contact by Carl Sagan and... well, just about anything by Michael Moorcock.
William Hassinger
7. iObject
You know, I think that somewhere in the back of my head there was a thought not unlike this lurking. I'm glad you put this spin on the movie. I don't think it's going to change anyone's opinion of it, but since i liked the movie I like this idea.

@jramboz I can't speak for Contact, but I can say that what I've read of Moorcock indicates to me that what you're calling his SF is just futurish fantasy (I'm largely thinking Cornelius here). There's plenty of that kind of SF out there and I think the point is being made here that, while there are gray areas in the genre distinction, there are definitely solid, identifiable examples of what constitutes SF and/or Fantasy.
JeffV
8. Foxessa
Um, James Nicholl did not create "What These People Need Is A Honky." A woman came up with that, quite some back.
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9. heresiarch
"Beauty, discovery, exploration, wonder—those are mere adjuncts to this science fiction future, means rather than ends, and ultimately irrelevant compared to the conquest of all that is known."

All of which makes "this science fiction future" a poor stand-in for All Of Sci Fi Ever. I mean, do you even read science fiction? It's got beauty, discovery, even the numinous in spades. It just touches it via knowledge, via science, rather than via emotional truth. But that doesn't make it any less numinous, no more than knowing that the stars are enormous balls of burning gas billions and trillions of miles away makes the experience of looking up at the sky at night any less numinous--if anything, it makes it more so. We call it sensawunda. That is the secret of science fiction: understanding wonders need not make them pedestrian. It can make them all the more wondrous.
Jason Ramboz
10. jramboz
@iObject, #7

Actually, I was more referring to Moorcock's Fantasy (and its many imitators) as an example of dystopian Fantasy, or at least dark, brooding, nihilistic Fantasy.

Also, you should really read Contact. The entire novel is about approaching the numinous (the word is used frequently) through science. Sadly, this element was largely lacking from the movie adaptation.
Alex Brown
11. AlexBrown
"What These People Need Is A Honky" is my new favorite film description. :) That is exactly why I hated Dances With Wolves - well, that and the terrible storyline and the sheer existence of Kevin Costner - but it is also why I refuse to see Avatar. I loved Titanic (I was 14 year old girl...I saw it 3 times in theaters, and cried like a baby each time), but this is just too much. I get the whole sci-fi vs. fantasy thing you're going for, but I think it's something unintentional. I think the people who look at the Na'vi and see elves are a limited bunch and I doubt even J.C. would go that route.

In Avatar I see Dances With Wolves, Glory, and every other movie centered around a white dude fightin' other white dudes to protect the "innocent" and "pure" minority figures who themselves are nothing but a collection of stereotypes and exaggerated customs. And yeah, maybe it's the non-Honky part of me that gets pissed about this stuff (I'm a third Cherokee, a third Black, and a third White), but I think after all the crap that 1/3 of me did to the other 2/3s of me I have a right to get defensive.
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12. heresiarch
FWIW, I saw Avatar and ye gods, the WTPNIAH-ness of the whole thing is staggering and I understand anyone who refuses to see it on those grounds alone. If you can stomach that particular noxiousness, however, it has many other virtues to dull the pain. I love world-building, and Avatar pushes cinematic world-building to a whole new level. The special effects may not be in service of the plot, exactly, but they surely are in service of Pandora. It is beautiful, and luminous, and numinous. Even the human areas are technological treats, with neat holographic displays and fun, brutal, machines. If you can bracket off the racism, the world will take your breath away.
P Bradley Robb
13. knownhuman
The more I read about this movie, the less inclined I am to actually watch it. But I have noticed that my fellow nerds have been much more critical of the film than the mainstreamers have.

While I haven't seen this film yet, others it has been compared to have always struck me not as reverent towards the native culture, but almost mocking in their tone. As noted above, the phrase "What these people need is a honky" is rather apt, it's not the culture itself that can combat the encroaching colonialism, but that an outsider is better able to understand the culture, and in doing so is a better member of that culture, that the culture itself.

It's more Kayne than reverence in my book.
JeffV
14. JJS
The problem here is, when the movie goes belly up, those in hollywood who think they know and understand everything won't way, "This was a crappy movie, we have to be more careful." They will say, "The public doesn't wany any more of this SF/fantasy crap. It's run its course."
JeffV
15. Stanley Lui
knownhuman: I think the reason SF nerds are more critical of the movie is that we're already familiar with many of the elements in use here, however well-executed. It's simply not as awe-inspiring to us because we've largely seen it before, and so it doesn't end up distracting us from the problems in the story.

I mean, remember how many people were blown away by the basic premise of the Matrix? In contrast, how many SF fans guessed the nature of the Matrix (if not the motivation) in the first few minutes of the film?
JeffV
16. Colin Dean
At the end of the film one character actually transforms from human to Na’vi—in other words, moves from the world of science fiction to that of fantasy. Why is this the obvious Hollywood ending? Why does it please the crowd? In part because historically, science fiction tends towards dystopia, and fantasy towards utopia; in part because the joys of fantasy are more obvious than the joys of science fiction (riding a dragon may not be easier than building a starship, but it’s certainly simpler); but ultimately, I think it’s because most of us yearn for the numinous, for the all-powerful and ultimately incomprehensible, whether it be in a church, a mosque, or projected in 3-D upon the silver screen.


Science fiction and fantasy are about escapism--escaping from our hectic, mundane existence here in our world to one much more hectic, more dangerous, more ideal, and more like how we'd want the world to be for a day.
JS Bangs
17. jaspax
I want to echo the sentiments of heresiarch@12. The movie's plot is unexceptional and predictable, and you can easily fill out your WTPNIAH bingo card with it. I was dimly aware of both of these things as I watched the movie--more so once it was over. However, none of these things were on my mind as I left the theater. Instead, all I could say was oh my Gawd that was gorgeous. The technical achievements of this film deserve to be seen as artistic feats in their own right, and the film is worth seeing just to watch the scenery.
Marcus W
18. toryx
I haven't seen the movie and I'm not particularly interested in doing so. Still, I might see it with others if the situation arises.

What bothers me about a lot of the comments (both here and elsewhere) is the notion that beauty and technical achievement in some way makes up for a bad story or a lack of depth and/or foundation. It reminds me of the judging a book by the cover mindset. I see it in a lot of areas: movies, television, books and especially computer and video games.

Frankly, I don't understand it; visual appeal can only go so far and to me it's insignifcant in judging the true value of things, whether it be art or entertainment. What happened to measuring things by their overall quality rather than their appearance?

Maybe I'm just becoming an old curmugeon but every time I see someone say, "Well the story sucked but it looked really good," I think that they're only encouraging others to forget about the quality in favor of the ooh, ahh factor. Because of that it's no wonder to me that the publication industry is suffering so much, or that television, movies and video games are increasingly becoming little more than empty bags made of special effects.

It all just makes me very sad.
JS Bangs
19. jaspax
toryx@18:

I was anticipating a reaction such as yours :).

Let me say this: excellent visuals are in no way a substitute for story, character, etc., nor do they turn a bad story into a good story. However, visual beauty is an aesthetic value in its own right, and Avatar should be recognized as an artistic milestone for its surpassing excellence in that area.

Now, the best movies join visual excellence with storytelling excellence, and the story in Avatar is mediocre at best. So it's not a great movie in that sense. But at the same time, its visuals are enough to make it a good movie.
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20. heresiarch
toryx @ 18: "What happened to measuring things by their overall quality rather than their appearance?"

1) Find me a movie with the cinematography and world-building of Avatar and a lower WTPNIAH quotient, and I'll happily encourage people to see that instead. Thing is, no such beast exists. So the question is: do you ignore the film's obvious virtues because of one enormous flaw?

I've watched a vanishingly small number of films so good that I didn't have a single quibble with the acting, plot, cinematography, or something or another. If I only watched movies that were perfectly executed, I'd watch next to none, and if I only allowed myself to enjoy the perfect ones, I'd be a sad, sad panda. Instead, I try to understand both their virtues and their flaws, without allowing either to hide the other. Ignoring flaws is a mistake, but so is fixating on them to the exclusion of all else.

2) Actually, in my humble, the plot of Avatar is fairly well executed. It's not that the story is poorly told or the characters* poorly acted, it's that it's all in the service of a deeply problematic memetic payload.

*They're all obvious archetypes, but that's not always bad. It saves narrative time, for one thing.
Michael Roberts
21. Michael
I have thought of a retcon that makes it all make sense, by the way.

Why is it that the Na'vi are so human? They don't match anything else in their world - too few limbs, nostrils in their heads, etc. And Eywa (sp?) only defends them after a human asks for it.

This is just the surface, folks. How long has Eywa been watching us? I submit that Eywa has been watching us long enough to grow some humanoids, and only drives the Sky People out after getting (1) one sample of Sky People scientific memories and (2) one fully-stocked base.

Anybody else think it's odd that all the Na'vi on the planet speak the exact same language? It's because they've only existed for about three generations - further back, and they were subsentient six-limbed lemurs. (There's a reason those lemurs are also blue.)
Brian Simerl
22. Backwardation797
Talk about doing less with more.

It was beautiful to look at, and I appreciated the transhumansitic sci-fi aspect of the story, but it was all a little too cloying for my tastes.

I mean for a guy who for so long was the king of dystopian futures, he sure looks like he's mellowed and seemingly wants to redeem his uber-fascination with the Military Industrial Complex of his youth, after being a direct supporter of it for so long.

It seems Mr. Cameron has grown up in one way, maybe attempting to erase the immoral trail of carnage he left behind with the Terimantor series, for his kids sake maybe? Maybe this is how he chose to do that. To express himself, as Mr. Evans points out, through the numinous lens of very expensive CGI fantasy, in lieu of any other corrective factor or spiritual medium to rely on but his own art work.

Redemption through art, I love that. But lord knows this theory could be 100% baseless, as always!

_B.
JeffV
23. GalMontag
I didn't think it was all that terrible-- predictable and clunky, yes, but better than DWW by a huge margin. I'm much more intrigied by the world-building displayed in the film. Just give me 2+ hours of Pandora and its wildlife. With narration by David Attenborough. I'd be quite happy with that. Seriously.
JeffV
24. R. Emrys
I think Avatar actually subverts the WTPNIAH trope to some extent--because the actual state of affairs appears to be What This Sapient Planet Needs is a Honky. The Na'vi are low-tech generic natives living in harmony with nature. Eywah is a planetary-scale computer with really highly developed biotech. The plants and animals all appear to be deliberately created tools for her protection and maintenance (thus the universal USB ports), the coming-of-age ceremony makes the Na'vi more useful to her, and I suspect the unobtainium of being artificial as well. (I like Michael@21's theory, which fits in with this neatly.)

I also liked that the Generic Native Religion turned out to be true in very science fictional ways. "All things are connected." Yup. "All energy is borrowed from Eywa, and in the end we have to return it." Uh-huh. "At this sacred tree we commune with our ancestors." Yes, because they've been uploaded into a giant computer.

Why does the sapient planet need a honky? Well, now she has a template of how they think, how their technology works, and how best they can be manipulated. If someone were trying to get mining rights on my head, I'd want to know those things too.

Side note: the Floating Mountains float because unobtainium has antigrav properties--that's why it's floating over Generic Amoral Corporate Dude's desk. I'm glad I'm not the only person who missed this the first time around. I'm going to put in a vote for the mountains as either back-up hard drives, or eggs. Either one would explain why signal transmission is shot there: they need to be independent of Eywa's main body.
Blake Ellis
25. galaxyexpressed
Do you guys think the movie Pathfinder is a good example of WTPNIAH? He's the white hero among a group of native americans, but he was raised as one of them, and therefore a "noble savage" himself. Just curious.
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26. heresiarch
GalMontag @ 23: " Just give me 2+ hours of Pandora and its wildlife. With narration by David Attenborough. I'd be quite happy with that. Seriously."

Word.

R. Emrys @ 24: "and I suspect the unobtainium of being artificial as well."

I had it pegged as the other way around: a planetary supercomputer was able to evolve because there was this abundant supply of superconducting material lying about.
Jon Evans
27. rezendi
JeffV @1, Nick Mamatas @3 - Shoulda been more explicit: I'm talking symbolically here. Obviously there's a lot of (reasonably high-quality) technobabble in the movie that sciencizes the Na'vi; when I say "the humans are Science Fiction" and "the Na'vi are Fantasy", I'm talking about the semiotics.

KateNepveu @4, Foxessa @8 - Thanks! Never seen it cited before.

Heresiarch @9 - Oh, I agree that AVATAR's deck is highly stacked in fantasy's favour.

Milio1313 @11 - Wouldn't surprise me if the sci-fi/fantasy thing is unintentional, but then, so is the WTPNIAH subtext; both are very much there regardless of intent.

JJS @14 - "Belly up"?! It made $232 million in its opening weekend.

Stanley Lui @15 - Yeah, exactly. (And hi!)

R. Emrys @24 - The antigrav/unobtainium mountains notion is interesting, but poses more questions than it answers, eg: why hasn't HomeTree lifted off, if the biggest deposit is beneath it? If there's that much in the mountains, why not mine them? And if the mountains are antigrav, why haven't they flown into space already?
JeffV
28. Iapetus999
Couple of things

I thought the planet had lesser gravity, which would enable those heavy weight flying creatures to actually fly, and also explains the too-thin bodies of the Na'vi. Lets the Tree grow bigger, etc.

It's funny. I was commenting the other day about "V" and I asked, "why do the aliens always look like us when they invade, and we don't do the same?" Well for once, we actually changed to look like them. It was actually refreshing.

I won't go into the obvious tech problems and inconsistencies with avatars, not to mention creating the hybrids in the first place. I did like the networking aspect of the planet.

I don't think the point of the movie was the WTPNIAH. I didn't get that message until I read this. Hell, why not throw in What This Picture Needs is a Hot Chick. The point is Honkies Need To Change. If some military imperialist white guy can change, then why don't the rest of us?

As far as Fantasy goes, I don't really see it, tho I love the metaphorical analysis. There's no proof that this Eywa did a damn thing to fight the humans. It could all have been a coincidence. Maybe Eywa wanted to get rid of those pesky Na'vi and encouraged the humans, so it lured them in with unobtanium.
JeffV
29. vito excalibur
Thanks guys, but actually I didn't. My friend [lj]desdenova said that it was possibly her friend [lj]tagonist who came up with it. I was just the one who said it needed to be a panel at Wiscon. Whatever; to whatever degree I boosted it, I release it into the wild. All I really want is for it to be so well known that no one can ever make another one of these movies again because the moment they pitch it everyone goes "You seriously want to make ANOTHER WTPNIAH movie?"
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30. heresiarch
You know something weird about WTPNIAH movies? The Last Samurai is classic WTPNIAH. I mean, the "Last Samurai" is Tom Cruise. Wtf, right? You'd think that Japanese people would hate its patronizing ass. But no--Japanese people love that movie to death. It's incredibly popular there. Weird, huh?
Michael Roberts
31. Michael
rezendi @27 - ooh! Good questions!

"Why hasn't HomeTree lifted off, if the biggest deposit is beneath it?"

It's the biggest deposit within 200 km of the base, but I'll bet it's right under HomeTree because the home trees secrete the stuff. Has to be a honking big root system under there. And seriously - how could that size tree stay up without agrav?

"If there's that much in the mountains, why not mine them?"

Their mining tech is big, heavy machines that crawl on the ground, and the mountains are not on the ground. Also they're too far from the base (which was built before prospecting was complete, obviously) and they can't fly there safely anyway.

The base was built by a government science program about thirty years ago, and was mothballed for about five years, then bought on the cheap by Amoral Mining, Inc., who had a Pentagon civilian on its board of directors. They revived the Avatar program to try the diplomatic route, and brought in the artillery when it stopped working.

It stopped working, of course, as soon as Eywah realized what she was seeing - and needed more tech. Tipping the emotional balance of the Na'vi would not just be easy - it would be Eywah's basic mode of existence. You know the saying, "God has no hands but mine?" The Na'vi embody it.

It's a cool world he's built. I'm predicting some very, very interesting fanfic. Heck, I might write some myself. Too bad it's impossible to Google it, thanks to his ambiguous titling.

"And if the mountains are antigrav, why haven't they flown into space already?"

After a home tree deposits enough unobtainium to lift off the surface, the rock counterbalances and the tree falls (the root system wouldn't get enough water anyway). So they grow to the point that they just barely lift off, then stop. After the tree rots away, a process that takes a very long time indeed, the mountain is free.

That's how the home trees propagate. Seeds buried in the floating mountains, that fall off as the mountain sails along above the planet's surface. The only reason the Hallelujah Mountains are fixed in place is that weird magnetic field captures them, because Eywah needs them.

Eventually, of course, the rest do fly off into space as the rock and dirt erodes off the unobtainium, which looks pretty crystalline in the chunk on Amoral Corporatist's desk. Home trees have already colonized the rest of that solar system, along with the rest of the jungle, whatever has seeds that can survive the icy blackness of space.

The world minds in that system communicate, of course. By radio. That's how they knew we were coming. They're listening now.
Michael Roberts
32. Michael
I just realized why the Na'vi are twelve feet tall! Eywah had no idea from our television just how tall we are, and by the time we got there, boy was she face-palming. Her sisters gave her no end of grief over that one.
Alex Brown
33. AlexBrown
rezendi @ 11: But the difference between unintentional SF/Fantasy tropes and unintentional WTPNIAH-ism is that Cameron is White and that attitude is seriously pervasive in colonial/majority cultures. I don't mean to turn this into a racism debate or anything, I just mean that it's there and unintentionality in this case has very different and much more important ramifications than in terms of how much unintentional influence Tolkien had.

GalMontag @ 23: Mmm...Attenborough...PBS, get on it!

It seems that the conversations surrounding the movie have less to do with the movie itself than the issues the movie stirs up. Film students, you now have your next thesis topic!
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34. heresiarch
rezendi @ 27: "Oh, I agree that AVATAR's deck is highly stacked in fantasy's favour."

You're kind of missing my point. It isn't, as you claim it is, a battle between FANTASY on the one hand and SCIENCE FICTION on the other. It's a battle between people who believe in wonder and those who believe in money and power. That you see it as such is more reflection of your personal understanding of the genres than it is of the genres themselves: there's plenty of numinous sf and plenty of grim, unrelenting fantasy.
Marcus W
35. toryx
jaspax @ 19:

Now that it is hours later I'll admit that a lot of my post concerned the very concept of sacrificing story for awesomeness or some sort of aescetic beauty in general rather than just Avatar. A lot of people have been raving about the beauty of the planet itself and the value of that alone and I think that's fairly justified.

As heresiarch @ 20 put it, it's very difficult these days to find something that has everything. Which is the whole point of my little rant. I sort of wish colorful pieces of high technology without story weren't so popular so that the makers of these movies (and other forms of entertainment) would be forced to look at the whole package rather than just the wow factor. But it's true that for the time being, at least, that's not happening and it's not going to happen any time soon. And there can certainly be a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment found in films like Avatar. I'm just very tired of it being the status quo.
Jon Evans
36. rezendi
heresiarch @34: Sure, there are counterexamples, but I'm not arguing that they don't exist, I'm arguing that they're very much a minority.

Is this is because of actual intrinsic differences between the genres? A moot point. It's at least partly because a) "if this goes on..." type stories that warn of the consequences of new real-world technologies don't much exist in fantasy, and b) we tend to relabel seriously grim dystopic fantasy as horror.
JeffV
37. Foxessa
From over here ot looks like massive science fail in science fiction is blamed on Clinton -- er -- Fantasy and its girl cooties!
Jon Evans
38. rezendi
Foxessa @37 - I'm not sure I understand. Are you saying that James Cameron and JRR Tolkien (the only writers cited by name so far here) are perceived as infested with "girl cooties"? That's, um, certainly not my impression.
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39. heresiarch
toryx @ 35: "As heresiarch @ 20 put it, it's very difficult these days to find something that has everything.'

The only part I disagree with is the "these days" part. Sturgeon's Law wasn't articulated until quite recently, but it's been true since story-telling began. I'm sure that in ancient Greece people complained that everyone's always getting caught up in the meter and poetry, and doesn't anyone care about story anymore? The perfect balance between cinematography, story, and everything else evident in classic cinema is selection bias: we only keep rewatching the stuff that got it all right, and so it seems to transcend Sturgeon's Law. Truth is, ninety percent of that was crap too. There is no golden age to hearken back to.

rezendi @ 36: "Sure, there are counterexamples, but I'm not arguing that they don't exist, I'm arguing that they're very much a minority."

...and I'm arguing that you're wrong; that the numinous is a normal, unexceptional element in any number of sf works; that they do not constitute an easily-dismissed minority but a vital strand within science fiction.

"Is this is because of actual intrinsic differences between the genres? A moot point."

So, let me get this straight--you're arguing that the movie unintentionally reflects a potentially unreal dichotomy between sf and fantasy for which there are copious counter-examples. Even if you were right, you seem to have narrowed your argument down to irrelevance.
Jon Evans
40. rezendi
heresiarch @39:

...and I'm arguing that you're wrong; that the numinous is a normal, unexceptional element in any number of sf works; that they do not constitute an easily-dismissed minority but a vital strand within science fiction.

I gather you're conceding it's a minority but arguing that said minority is vital and not easily dismissed? Well, fair enough; I am unconvinced, but it's probably an unresolvable disagreement. (Or maybe we could ask someone who reads incredibly copiously for an opinion. James Nicoll, say, bringing this whole conversation nicely full circle.)

So, let me get this straight--

I fear that either I have misspoken or you have misinterpreted. The moot point I meant is whether the dichotomy - well, actually, dichotomies: utopic/dystopic, numinous/not - are descriptivist or prescriptivist, not whether or not they're real.
john mullen
41. johntheirishmongol
I saw this the night it opened but haven't posted anything about it yet because I was on vacation. As a visual treat, it is well worth the 10 bucks, but at the same time I expect a decent story with more imagination and respect for the audience than what we were given. Here we have the genre of imagination, scifi, and all we get is dreck in the story.
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42. heresiarch
rezendi @ 40: "I gather you're conceding it's a minority but arguing that said minority is vital and not easily dismissed?"

Not at all; the more I think of it the more examples of numinous sf I come up with. Even Peter Watts' Blindsight has its numinous moments, albeit touching a rather Cthulhu-esque transcendance; and Gibson's AI loas are pretty numinous. (And when Rei pops out of all the nanotech makers in Idoru, that's pretty something-or-other...) Rather, it is as you say an unprovable argument, so I'm staking out the position that even if I were to grant that you were right and they were a minority, they would still constitute a large enough, central enough, and influential enough minority that to dismiss them is to fundamentally distort what is meant by the term science fiction.

"The moot point I meant is whether the dichotomy - well, actually, dichotomies: utopic/dystopic, numinous/not - are descriptivist or prescriptivist, not whether or not they're real."

So what evidence do you have that they are real?
Jon Evans
43. rezendi
heresiarch @42 - Evidence? I suspect we're still several generations of auto-text-mining/tagging software away from having any hard evidence on the subject. Shall we drop the debate for now and take it up again in 2020?
JeffV
44. Foxessa
38. rezendi

See The Girl Cooties Theory of Literature by Deborah Doyle and related articles.
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45. heresiarch
rezendi @ 43: Fair enough, though I suspect if you're looking for auto text mining to pin down the numinous, you might be waiting a bit longer than ten years.
JeffV
47. R. Emrys
Michael @ 31 & 32: Thank you for explaining this while I was away finishing XMas gifts. (Making takes longer than buying--who knew?) You just won what, in college, I used to call an Occham's Beard award. Though I seriously do think Cameron may have intended at least the basics of this.
Sandi Kallas
49. Sandikal
I will probably be seeing the movie this weekend. Although I am an SF&F fan and usually support SF movies, I really have no desire to see "Avatar". I'll only be going because that's what my husband wants to do this weekend. My teenager has seen it twice and all he says about it is that it's long.

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