Saturday, December 19, 2009

Is Avatar science fiction?

The big science fiction movie of the moment is Avatar - there has been tons of hype and even some science.  It's about humans that can only visit a planet filled with beautiful blue-skinned aliens by downloading their consciousness into genetically engineered alien bodies. Pretty science fictional, right?   But Charlie Petit at the Knight Science Journalism tracker has noticed that many of the reviews seem to be avoiding calling it science fiction at all - and thinks that's a good thing:
One gathers that Avatar has aliens, mend-melding (that part – a sort of neural transference – might be barely plausible), a distant extrasolar moon, an attractive and admirable alien race complete with compatible DNA, and of course clunky dialog plus plain-as-day allegoric resonance with human history and our cultural foibles. Therefore this fantasy movie or space opera, which are the right sorts of genre for things like Avatar, seemed ripe for a sci-fi terminology rant. Yet most reviewers don’t call it sci fi, or fantasy for that matter, but merely and in various ways an imaginative movie. Maybe the s.f. term has been outre among reviewers for awhile. At any rate, that’s good. Science is badly enough understood by popular culture as it is without insisting that the average robo-transformer-predat0r-alien-giantsnake-evilgenius-JulesVerne-IsaacAsimov-based-etc. fantasy movie has reason to be called science fiction.
Personally, that doesn't make sense to me. If you limit the term "science fiction" to movies and novels where all - or even most - of the science is plausible, you list. Space opera, pseudoscience (especially psi powers), and fantastic aliens have been a big part of the SF  genre since the so-called Golden Age of the mid-20th century. Just because some SF has terrible science or an unoriginal plot doesn't make it less a part of the genre.

I guess it's a bit nice to see the flip side of the old "it's good so it's not science fiction" argument, but I think that really "it's bad so it's not science fiction" is just as unreasonable. It looks to me that, if nothing else, Avatar evokes a science ficitonal sensawonda, and it's worth seeing for that - and
as Petit points out "handsome, brave, underdressed aliens."

Image: Illustration from the 1953 edition of H. Beam Piper's "Ullr Uprising", which you can read for free at Project Gutenberg. The novel was based on the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion.



  1. Anonymous5:58 PM

    I'd rather be blue!

  2. I saw the movie last night .It looks a modern representation of Hindu mythological concepts and imagery .In Hindu Mythology one of the gods of Hindu trinity lord Vishnu manifests himself in a form alled avatar time to time on earth to punish the ill doers -9 main Avatars have already descended to earth and rescued the earth from various bad things and one still awaits ie Kalki- an aggressive one who rides a horse -same depiction is also here in Avatar .The film is an amalgam of mythological imagery and imagined future technology -cyborgs , virtual realities ,recomb DNA tech.etc etc -but no doubt it fits into even any rigid definition of an Sf/F.

  3. Great question. It's interesting and a positive thing that people are starting to see science-fiction "outside the box". "Avatar" falls squarely in the box of science-fiction since it is almost completely dependent on future science. However, I think the story is so universal in it's themes that it allows people to forget the people are big blue aliens. Not too much though. Despite what Cameron thinks Neytiri isn't sexy.

  4. Science fantasy, maybe? Also the Na'vi apparently don't have DNA or RNA (source) so I'm curious as to what other alternatives there could be?

  5. Suzy: impossibilium. Given what that site says about Na'vi biology (which is a textbook example of bullshitium), hybrid avatars would not be possible.

  6. Also: if all Pandoran lifeforms are hexapods, the Na'vi should also be six-limbed since they evolved on the same planet.

    And Alpha Centauri is not the closest star system to Earth. Proxima is, hence its name.

  7. Carlo3:18 PM

    Seen the movie yesterday. Well, at least it's not plain fantasy (like Star Wars: the movie that made people believe that when in a fantasy story there's spaceship, that's sci-fi). On the other side, opposite to what Mauricem said, the story is almost completely independent from technology: being dance with wolves painted blue, the technology it needs is that of the 19th century. What there's of really sci-fi in it? Well, maybe the fact that uses a what-if stratagem to make people consider things from a different perspective. But again, this perspective is so abused (bad powerful invaders against helpless good savage) it doesn't really need any future science or machinery to be evoked. I vote no.

  8. My opinion of Avatar as a scientist, an SF/F writer and reader and a movie buff:

    Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. How biologically-plausible are the bones "reinforced with naturally occurring carbon fiber" [source]?

  11. I'm thinking not very plausible. Carbon fibers don't seem to naturally occur on earth and the way they are synthesized makes it seem implausible that the process could be replicated in biological organisms.

    But maybe I'm just not thinking creatively enough.

  12. i really the movie avatar.. It was great, the effects were really amazing... great movie and also great director

  13. Anonymous9:46 AM

    As a 50 year old Engineer the science behind the story of Avatar was so much more interesting than the plot. The worst part was the idea that the humans would travel en-mass to another solar system even in hibernation. The plot, as it was, didn't lend itself to having the Avtars or at least remote controlled robots connected to from Earth, but that is the more likely way we would visit a distant planet outside our solar system.

    Of course, its sci-fi and sci-fi has never been limited to what is thought to be realistic. Still, the more realistic the better and Avatar is a big step that direction from Star Wars and Star Trek.

  14. Anonymous7:01 PM

    A really good book on these issues is Stanislaw Lem's "Microworlds." I think Lem would classify "Avatar" as hard fantasy being that the way things are built up don't follow a stochastic method that's reasonable. He also points out that if the reality is governed by morality it definitely falls into the fantasy category. "Avatar" does this in several places. It ignores fundamental science as well as common sense logic, their's no place on the periodic table for the element sought after. What's disturbing is that so many insist on calling it science fiction. Makes one wonder if Hollywood really could produce a bonafide sample anymore...

  15. Yes Avatar is with no doubt a science-FICTION film.
    It deals with several issues related in a scientific context that might or might not be feasible. But the credibility of the fiction is not the issue here.
    The question here is a matter of genre definitions.

    If a science-fiction movie should consist only of verifiable and documented science, then you take out the element of the fiction.
    And you would have a science-fact movie, much like "Apollo 13"

    Let me give some examples;

    1) we can travel in space = science-fact.
    1) we can do interstellar space travels = science-fiction.

    2) There is life in the cosmos = science-fact.
    2) there is extraterrestrial life in the cosmos = science-fiction.

    3) Computers give us the ability to connect and manipulate the environment of a virtual or artificial reality = science-fact.
    3) Computers gives us the ability to connect and manipulate directly with a biological creature = science-fiction.

    And there any many more of such examples in the film. From superconducting materials, cryo-preservation to the Gaia hypothesis.

    The film Avatar is packed with science-fiction. The question is what other terms of genres should be applied for the most appropriate and covering definition.

    SciFi-action-adventure ?

    Where a film as aliens could be described as a SciFi-action-horror.

    Also I feel an urge to respond to the 50 y.o engineer who suggested a more realistic scenario, concerning controlling the Avatars from earth. Or robots as the actual suggestion was.
    Defying the laws of physics would be good science-fiction for sure. But not more realistic at all. If that is what you are after.
    Since no information can travel faster then light speed. Any conversation or interaction between the moon Pandora and the planet earth would take more then 9 years.
    That's a long time to wait for an answer to a question. Or a response to an action.
    We need to physically be somewhat near the actual starsystem if we want a quick response time.

    Also to Athena Andreadis
    Who says:
    Also: if all Pandoran lifeforms are hexapods, the Na'vi should also be six-limbed since they evolved on the same planet.

    And Alpha Centauri is not the closest star system to Earth. Proxima is, hence its name.

    Actually Alpha-Centauri is the name of the closest star system to our own star(sun).
    It is a triple star system, consisting of Alhpa A, Alhpa B, And Proxima. Yes Proxima has an orbit which makes it comes closer to our own system.
    But it is still part of the Alpha-Centauri system.

    And by following you logic on evolution, all life on earth should be similar as well, when it comes to the development of limbs through natural selection?
    Sorry, but that's rubbish.

    Any ways, my humble point is merely that the film "Avatar" is a hybrid of several movie genres.
    But it is very much a SciFi film as well.

  16. The movie is not science-fiction; it's science mixed with fantasy. I made a series about the flawed science of "Avatar." Check it out:

  17. I'm studying science fiction at university. SF as a whole does not have to be based on possible or plausible science, thats why there has always been overlap with fantasy and horror.
    What's been discussed already has been addressed by academic SF, by grouping the scientifically possible into its own sub-genre (Hard SF). That leaves SF as a whole able to address issues without forcing itself to be plausible.
    Its important to remember that the main point of science fiction as a genre is to make us look critically at the present, and meditate on the future. Anything which makes us do this is SF.

  18. Avatar is a good love story and the movie effect is very good.

  19. I think avatar is a science fiction. I watch the movie and I had fun in watching it. Nice movie to watch for.

  20. Anonymous12:45 AM

    What do u mean by tons of hype ?

  21. Anonymous2:30 PM

    Natas you forget. All mammals have four limbs, and the design of our bodies is very similar. The na' VI have a USB key on their head


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