Non-Fiction Reviews

The Science of Avatar

(2012) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, hrdbk, 18.99, 273pp, ISBN 978-0-575-13095-1


Within a couple of months of its release James Cameron's 2009 Avatar became the highest box office grossing film of all time in terms of currency of the day (i.e. not in real terms); in just six weeks its takings stood at US$1.859bn (1.15bn)!   Indeed back in 2010 we cited it as one of the best films of 2009, albeit with the caveat for it having absolutely stunning visuals rather than for any plot or SFnal context. In fact one could say that its science content was decidedly 'iffy' what with: the planet's lighter gravity yet thicker-than-Earth's atmosphere; seemingly uniform terrestrial biome of tropical rainforest; the tree-mediated, planetary hive-mind; and not least the floating-in-the-air mountains, to take just a few examples.

Yet Avatar's imagery of an extraterrestrial world was visually truly groundbreaking and fantastical. This is so much so that for some the cinematic experience (especially in 3D at an IMAX) bordered on the religious: Avatar is a true exemplar of eye-candy. And, of course, there are the afore 1.15 billion worth of reasons as to why this film simply cannot be ignored.

Now, all those with a science training who have an active interest in science fiction with their similarly inclined friends have surely at some stage played the science-SF concatenation (to use the term in its dictionary sense) game of first pulling apart the scientific inaccuracies and inconsistencies of a film or TV programme, then having truly trashed the film on scientific intellectual grounds (easy-peasy to do with Avatar ) do the reverse and try to explain what was going on in the film or programme in terms of real science rationales.   With his latest non-fiction book, The Science of Avatar, it is this last game that Stephen Baxter is playing, and indeed given the film's huge commercial success (and remember that this is not withstanding its eye-wateringly huge cost of production) commissioning this book was a no brainer for Orion (the publishing house of which Gollancz is an imprint).   Of course Gollancz (one of the big four of the British Isles SF/F imprints) has a number of authors capable of tackling the science of Avatar and of these the prolific Baxter is a fair choice to helm such a project.

It has to be said that even playing the 'let us explain the film in real science terms' game is not really possible for Avatar as there is just too much of its content that is downright flaky that any truly hard-SF-loving scientist, no matter (or even especially because of) their science training, can lend science credibility to Cameron's (entertaining as it is) mumbo jumbo: Cameron's film is really science fantasy as opposed to SF.   Fortunately for Stephen Baxter he does not have to play this game as Cameron's SFnal pot boiler has so much thrown into it that there are plenty of isolated nuggets to examine for related science. In other words Baxter is not looking at how the film as a whole relates to science (as you genuinely can with other SF cinematic offerings such as GATTACA) but how specific elements that make up aspects of the film relate to some aspects of science.   This is a subtle distinction because any scientist lending their support for the film's overall relevance to science, or any science-related message it may impart, would soon find their professional credibility being dented by their peers.

Indeed, by looking at how some aspects of science relate to various elements of the film obviates the need for Stephen Baxter to look at the scientific validity of any chains of thought/reason/plot/concept the film contains.   So instead he looks just at some of the individual 'links' within these 'chains' and how these relate to isolated scientific exemplars.   To take just one example, we find that the number of trees likely to exists on Pandora is probably (given reasonable assumptions) of the same order of magnitude number of neurons in a human brain, hence by implication (assuming coherent and complex information processing and storage is capable within trees (ahem)) some sort of planetary consciousness is possible.   What he does not show (or rightly even begin to try) is how science demonstrates that some sort of tree-mediated planetary consciousness is possible because quite simply such a conjecture is stuff and nonsense. (Though he does share some biological musings on single cell response one would superficially associate with multi-celled animals with neurons.)

Now this may seem somewhat of a cheat for Baxter to make such leaps in logic, skipping non-scientific gaps in order to make some sort of scientific connection that maybe trees albeit alien Pandoran trees might be part of some giant consciousness perhaps of the type not far removed from Gaia (at least the Gaia as some mistake James Lovelock's Gaia to be). (Lovelock's Gaia is actually a cybernetic system that 'regulates' the Earth's biosphere and for the past quarter of a century we have begun modelling it: in no way is it a planetary consciousness.)   And so Baxter can talk not only about the number of neurons, and processing power compared to the human brain, but also how close we are to perhaps creating artificial intelligence as well as to talk about Lovelock's Gaia and how life mediates the Earth system.

In short this book is not really about the science of Avatar Avatar is too much fantasy for that but uses elements within Avatar to introduce the reader to a wide array of loosely connected-to-the-film science from many disciplines: anthropology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, ecology, biology, etc.   This in itself is a worthy exercise and one that Stephen Baxter does well.

This distinction is important for it is no subtle nuance: any scientist worth half their salt can pull apart many of Avatar's central concepts from the floating mountains, the planet's terrestrial biome (which seems to suffer from the 'it rained on Mongo' syndrome), its atmosphere composition, to the planetary consciousness.   Having said that other of the concepts, such as interstellar travel, are on a slightly firmer science footing (though let's skate over the ship's required reaction mass and drive).

Stephen Baxter himself seems to sense that some scientists might criticise him for what he has done with his highly selective cherry-picking of the film's elements chosen for scientific elucidation while skipping over others, even those that are directly related to these. Indeed he says in the book's prologue, "no doubt you'll find a few places where you will disagree with my [his] interpretations and conclusions.   That, too, is part of good science." And of course he is right.

So what is the value of a book like this of a film that is arguably as much (if not more) fantasy than science fiction? Well, in addition to it being of likely interest to a good number of the film's more ardent fans, such exercises do draw the attention to the connection between science and SF. This connection is not just of value because some of today's (and especially yesterday's) science fiction ends up as being tomorrow's science fact (or more often technological actuality), but because a number of surveys, science exhibitions featuring an SFnal element (the early 1994 Jurassic Park dinosaur exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London, being but one example), and classroom metaphors (the twins paradox being another and one that is even in this book), all show that SF can help with both science communication as well as spark an enthusiasm for science. (This last is something I have reported before.)   So I have no problem with Stephen Baxter's highly selective cherry-picking the film's elements to explore. And if some scientists have difficulty thinking outside the science box and into the messy sociological world of human psychology with all its foibles, then that's their problem.   Consequently, that this book has the potential to be a springboard for readers to delve into some real science is self-evident as The Science of Avatar comes with a reasonable further reading list of science and scientific references at its end.

My only real problem with the book is a copy editing niggle. The Earth's moon (common noun, one of many moons in our galaxy) is the Moon (proper noun, our specific moon we call the Moon): it is an upper case, lower case problem. Orion's style sheet might want to make a note. Ditto: 'Sun', 'sun'.

So who will like this book?   Well, clearly any qualified scientist into SF (especially anyone that has a personal subscription to multidisciplinary primary journals such as Science or Nature) will find little new: this book is not for them.   However non-scientist fans of Avatar may be surprised that so many of the film's elements have been, shall we say, 'inspired' by scientific understanding. (Sorry Cameron, I cannot bring myself to use the word 'grounded'.) And parents of teenagers who are avid fans of the film may well want to get this book for their offspring as if this book instils the beginnings of, or even helps further, an interest in school science then that is no bad thing.   SF may not always lead youngsters to a professional career in science (though it does for some including a few of the SF2 Concatenation team) but even if it only helps increase scientific literacy through sharing 'sense-of-wonder' (sensawunda) and facilitating the distinction between science fact and fiction, then these alone are quite worthy feats.   One thing we do know is that what with the 21st century synergism of rising population, biodiversity loss, resource depletion and climate change (all inferred early on in Avatar), we really do need as scientifically literate a global population as possible: ignorance is not going to help!   That one of Avatar's founding premise is that the Earth's own human ecology is at a threshold necessitating new resources is coincidentally germane to Stephen Baxter's The Science of Avatar's value.

Jonathan Cowie

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