Eye Candy

Last night I watched the first half of Avatar on DVD. I’m not sure I’ll watch the second half.

It’s visually stunning, of course. Breathtaking. But the story … feh.

For starters, there’s the unobtainium. Terrible name for a mineral — straight out of DC Comics. Either unobtainium is an element (which it can’t very well be), or it’s a molecule. If it’s a molecule, synthesizing it from its atomic constituents is simply bound to be a thousand times cheaper than sending out starships and maintaining a base on another planet.

We need also to ask, how can a gigantic economic demand ever develop for a substance that is so rare as to make this mining operation profitable? Consider the case of aluminum: It’s extremely useful stuff, but it was also extremely rare — more precious than gold — until a way was found, in the 19th century, to extract pure aluminum from bauxite. Until aluminum became cheap, there was no demand for it!

Considering the scope of an interstellar mining operation, unobtainium would have to be worth at least a million dollars per pound on the open market. Who would be willing to pay that, and why? No matter what the stuff does, cheaper methods of getting to the same result would drive it out of the market. If gasoline cost a million dollars a gallon, people would ride bicycles, and never mind the added inconveniences.

Whatever the properties of unobtainium may be, it’s safe to say that neither the science nor the economics makes a lick of sense.

But even if we give the author a free pass on that one, the business of building avatars that can romp around in the jungle with the natives still makes no economic sense. Why not just use heavily armored bulldozers to destroy the native village and dig up the unobtainium?

The science of how people in pods can control the avatars so perfectly — let’s not think too deeply about that.

So the hero gets lost in the jungle, and he’s in terrible danger, and he’s rescued by a beautiful young native female, who (a) happens to be the daughter of the chief, and (b) speaks English. Yeah, right. Several of the high-ranking natives, we soon learn, also speak English. Yet this isn’t a Star Trek universe where everyone does, nor is it a Doctor Who universe where the Tardis provides automatic translation services. No, the natives have their own language.

We learn in passing that the humans have provided, or tried to provide, schools for them, among other services. This is supposed to be an explanation for the English-speaking natives, but of course it makes no sense at all. Why would a profit-driven corporation have established schools in the first place? Why would high-ranking natives have attended the schools (for several years) in order to learn a language for which they had no use whatever?

The answer is staring us in the face: The author needed a few English-speaking natives in order for the story to work — so presto, the natives speak English. How convenient!

The natives of the planet Pandora are, of course, quite a lot like our own hunter-gatherer ancestors, either as they really were or as we fondly imagine them to have been. They hunt with bows and arrows. They have domesticated horse-like animals. That’s very plausible; the problem here is at a higher, more literary level.

The story of Avatar is, ultimately, based on the myth of the Noble Savage. We’re told that the natives live “in perfect harmony with nature.” We’re to admire them as exemplars of Good on that account, while the mining corporation embodies Evil. I have very little trouble with the latter half of that equation (though, in strict honesty, I do like owning an aluminum stepladder that I can lift with one hand). But the sad truth is, our own ancestors lived in harmony with nature only until they figured out how to build better weapons and other technologies with which to disrupt that harmony.

The agricultural revolution (circa 10,000 BCE) was an ecological disaster. No more harmony with nature. Nature has been retreating ever since. But even before that, look at what happened when the Siberians discovered America (circa 20,000 BCE). They hunted down and drove to extinction quite a lot of species of large animals, including some (such as the horse) that would have been useful to them, if they had ever considered domestication. But no — America was a giant source of fresh meat, and no more than that. The Native Americans learned to live in harmony with nature only when they had reduced nature to the point where their hunting weapons weren’t efficient enough to clean out the few species of large animals that remained.

Bison, for instance, remained plentiful until the white man arrived with rifles. Within a few years, the bison were all but extinct. If the Native Americans had had rifles, the bison would have been in serious trouble five or ten thousand years earlier.

This is how the noble savage actually operates in its native environment. Sorry, Hollywood.

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2 Responses to Eye Candy

  1. georgek says:

    In the case of bison, though, the Europeans mostly weren’t hunting them for their own use. In addition to giving Natives rifles you’d have to add another factor to the equation to see the same kind of results.

    Along the same lines, I think it’s not accurate to paint all early civilizations with the same brush regardless of their ecological niche.

    I heard an interesting interview the other day where the subject proposed that people living in areas that promoted monoculture (say, big areas of farming grain, or herding cattle) naturally turned to imperialism, wealth accumulation, and technological development, while people living in areas with a more diverse ecosystem (say, people in the mountains or jungle) focused their efforts on social and cultural development, as it simply wasn’t necessary to supplement their otherwise precarious (monocultural) existence in a diverse ecosystem.

    • midiguru says:

      Granted, the Europeans were mainly interested in the bison as an exercise in showing off their manhood by collecting mountains of trophies. But it’s possible that a similar impulse guided early Native American hunters. Game may have been so plentiful that they could drive an entire herd off a cliff in order to eat the tongues or whatever.

      Your comment about monoculture is intriguing, but I’m sensing a post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc argument lurking in the background. Mountain and jungle environments are poorly suited to agriculture (as are deserts). Anywhere that our ancestors could set up vast farming tracts, they did so. In any case, monoculture is a modern agribusiness arrangement. Farming in the Middle East, circa 5,000 BCE, was a much more diverse undertaking than that term would suggest — olives, grapes, emmer, barley, figs, sheep, cattle, and more would all have been cultivated by the inhabitants of a single village.

      I haven’t read a full history of the birth and development of agriculture in the Old World. I’d like to do so. I only know bits and pieces. But I’ve read, for instance, that one important reason why the New World lagged behind the Old in the diffusion of agriculture, domestication, and such things was that the Americas run from north to south. Cultural diffusion of plants and animals works best in an east-west direction, because you don’t have to cross climate boundaries. This may explain, for instance, why the llama was not brought north to North America — the llama wouldn’t have done well in the jungles of Central America.

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