Canavan’s ‘Avatar’ and the War of Genres

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Just a bit of Gerry Canavan on Avatar and the question of genre, re science fiction

In the beginning Avatar seems to situate itself firmly within this generic mode, with a group of scientists and mercenaries from Earth who have arrived on Pandora in spaceships to study the natives and drill for valuable minerals (not necessarily in that order). But by the end, while Avatar certainly remains an alternative to our empirical environment, it no longer operates as any kind of framework. Neither the biological/ecological systems present on the planet Pandora, nor the ability of our biological structures and technological apparatuses to interface with them, are remotely plausible from the perspective of either evolutionary biology or cognitive science without inventing some sort of massive hidden backstory for the Na’vi that involves incredible prehistoric genetic engineering on the planetary scale—and really not even then. (And of course Fridge Logic just makes it worse.)

In Suvinian/Freedmanian terms, then, Avatar isn’t really science fiction at all, because the type of imagination involved in its reception isn’t cognition. And by the end of the film any pretense of scientific plausibility or internal logical coherence has been abandoned altogether: telepathy and transmigration of souls are real, MechWarriors pull Bowie knives from their belts, and not even gravity seems to work anymore.

The overall critique here makes sense. As I watched the film I never considered the genre really as science fiction but as straight forward “fantasy” as magic or “faith” is the core logic of the narrative.


3 responses to “Canavan’s ‘Avatar’ and the War of Genres”

  1. gibb says:

    I’d still like to see it, but the choice of the name “Pandora” for a planet seems terribly uncreative to me.

  2. Steve says:

    Right. Pandora. Hm. Let’s call it Pandora. Can you imagine this discussion in the writer’s room and someone not speaking up and saying, “Hm, excuse me.”

  3. Andreas says:

    Its probably because Cameron got many ideas from a Frank Herbert novel .. look at this:

    “The surface of the planet Pandora is 80% seas in which lives a type of kelp which appears to be sentient. The land is populated by a number of predators who are efficient killers requiring people on the planet surface to adapt to a highly stressful lifestyle living within a fortress. The main fortress is known as Colony, a small city that is predominately underground.

    The planet Pandora itself with its non-human inhabitants is another main character of the book, echoing a strong version of the Gaia Hypothesis. As the book progresses, the reader discovers that the kelp, the hylighters, and other creatures of the planet appear to be linked into a large entity with a shared consciousness, Avata.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jesus_Incident