Jun 1 2012 3:00pm

Little Green Men and Huge Blue Dudes: The Science of Avatar by Stephen Baxter

The Science of Avatar by Stephen BaxterWith more than $2 billion in the bank before it had even hit home video (where it shattered the stats all over again) James Cameron’s Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time. That’s the fact of the matter.

As to the fiction, well... we all remember the broad strokes. The blue people. The big ol’ tree. The incredible flora and fauna. Lest we forget the baddies who laid wanton waste to all of the aforementioned in their unabashedly allegorical quest for the mythical mineral unobtanium.

Good times, right? But obviously well outwith the realms of possibility.

Actually, as it happens, one of the most extraordinary things about Avatar — an all-round extraordinary exemplar of epic SF at the cinema in any event, be damned the backlash — is its oftentimes painstaking engagement with that very thing: possibility. Rarely is the relationship between science fact and science fiction portrayed with such determined attention to detail, especially in a blockbuster of Avatar’s caliber, and it’s easy to grasp why. It’s one thing to be honest, after all, and quite another to be entertaining, but to be both must be doubly difficult — and that, I think, is a conservative estimate.

Little wonder, then, that it took something like 15 years for James Cameron and Avatar’s other imagineers to realise such a vast, ambitious vision. And who amongst us would be surprised if the promised sequels were as far off, for their part? In the interim, there’ve been books and action figures and video games to tide Avatar aficionados over, but, needless to say, none of the above have had the staggering mass appeal of the movie.

I don’t expect science fiction stalwart Stephen Baxter’s account of the real-world rationale behind the film’s fabulous fantasy will break a great many records either — if anything it’s an even more niche product than a poseable plastic Na’vi — but popularity is rarely a reliable indicator of quality, and in several senses, The Science of Avatar its absolutely fascinating. In the first, it adds a great deal of depth to the experience or else the recollection of Avatar itself, reinforcing the fiction’s faithful relationship with scientific fact, and if not that — because there are, admittedly, occasional exceptions to Cameron’s otherwise sensible assertions — then informed speculation. Baxter admits as much at the outset:

“We always have to be aware that Avatar is a movie, and what we see onscreen is there primarily to serve a narrative purpose. Avatar is a movie of hopeful awakenings [...] but hopeful awakenings are much more effective, for story purposes, if you have a nightmare to wake up from.”

Despite this, the author does take it upon himself, from time to time, to explain the essentially inexplicable: in the case of the Hallelujah Mountains — those spectacular flying landmasses held aloft, the filmmakers would have it, by the push of Pandora’s magnetic field — this leads to protracted grasping, when to admit defeat, just this once, would have been the lesser of these perceived evils. All parties would have been better served had Baxter simply allowed the islands to exist as “a lovely visual concept” rather than concluding that they must be representative “of a balance achieved by a kind of consciousness, just as Eywa is integral to the balance of the ecology.” This kind of fudging just muddies the waters — waters already somewhat muddied by discussion of, amongst myriad other subjects, special relativity.

Thankfully this is rare, if not isolated to the single instance aforementioned. By and large, the science of Avatar seems sound, thus the concepts addressed in The Science of Avatar fundamentally benefit from a grounding in truth: from the spaceship Jake Sully travels to Pandora on, equipped as it is with a smart solar shielding system and compartments designed to protect passengers from potentially fatal radiation, to the idea of asteroid mining, so recently in the news thanks again (in part) to James Cameron. Even unobtainium has a half-factual basis that helps bring its impact to bear.

The Science of Avatar takes itself and its source material very seriously indeed, and I dare say a more affable approach on Baxter’s behalf would have made this bible markedly more approachable. As is, though the science starts small, in no time at all it’s self-replicated into immensity. That this complexity is refreshing rather than off-putting is a testament to the bestselling British author’s ability. Finally, a use for our thinking caps!

Without a doubt, The Science of Avatar is a worthy companion piece to the titular motion picture — and given its reverence of said, one can quite understand why “this is the book [James Cameron] had hoped for,” rather than any of the others to have sprung malformed or merely marginal from the franchise — but its triumph is at least twofold, because as a sustained survey of so many of the laws and concepts that are the common ground between science fiction and science fact, it is invaluable.

If you’ve ever wondered what it might mean, in real terms, to travel at faster than light speeds, or wear an exoskeleton, or make it to Mars, or even establish communication with an alien species, then this is the primer for you, my friends and fellow amateur scientists. Stephen Baxter’s engagement with the ideas that animate Avatar is clear-eyed, concise and at times incredibly exciting. In short, The Science of Avatar is much more than another in a long line of excuses to watch the originating film again... but sure, it’s that for a start.

Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for, Strange Horizons and The Science Fiction Foundation. His blog is The Speculative Scotsman, and sometimes he tweets about books, too.

Joe Vondracek
1. joev
Wow, the highest grossing film of all time?? One of these days, I should really watch the second half of that movie. Visually awesome, but the plot and writing were so... simultaneously tepid and ridonkulous that I became disinterested halfway through. The special effects were amazing though. It's too bad Cameron et al. didn't find some better writers during those 15 years.
2. TheMadLibrarian
Does he discuss why a starfaring civilization has to resort to primitive stripmining techniques to get their minerals? And why they can't just find a deposit that DOESN'T have a giant sacred tree over top of it? 200 klicks is nothing for any sort of mechanized culture... this seems less a matter of science and more a matter of lazy.
3. Kirshy
Does the book answer the question as to why the Na'Ve have have four apendages while all of the other creatures on the planet have six?
Michael Grosberg
4. Michael_GR
It's odd that you call the Hallelujah Mountains "essentially inexplicable". Of all th ethings in the film, this one has, if not a solid base, then an official in-movie explanation that does not require a hard SF author to provide the explanation. Unobtanium is a room temperature superconductor, something that may or may not exist in nature but is within the realm of modern science. Superconducting magnets project magnetic fields whose shape is different than those of normal magnets in such a way that a "normal" magnet (in this case, a magnetite-rich rock or perhaps a metal rich rock inside a strong magnetic field) placed above a superconducting magnet will stay aloft, needing no further power source in order to float. This is essentially true for a pair of opposing normal magnets, but their magnetic field will cause one of them to slide away and flip over; with a superconducting magnet, the "normal" magnet will tend to stay anchored in place. No need for any planetary conciousness. Just go to youtube and search for "superconducting magnet levitation" and you'll see plenty of demnstrations.
Now, the waterfall falling off one of the floating mountains, being fed by no water source - that another matter...
Steve Taylor
5. teapot7
Poor old Avatar gets so much flack... It's all deserved, admittedly, but I still enjoyed it hugely.

I'm not sure I've got room in my life for a "Science of Avatar" though, especially so long after the movie came out. I might hold out for 'The Science of James and the Giant Peach".
6. Nicoclaws
Does he explain the reason why a big predator whose whole strategy is to attack unexpected from above has evolved to have such flamboyant feathers ?

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