The Science of Avatar by Stephen Baxter

The Science of Avatar by Stephen Baxter

Published by Gollancz, May 2012.

ISBN: 978 0 575 13095 1

274 pages

Review by Mark Yon

This is one of those books that does what it says on the tin, so to speak. In the tradition of the very successful The Science of Discworld, we have here a book that takes a fictional creation and looks at the scientific rationale behind it: in this case, the film Avatar. Written with director James Cameron’s blessing, and correspondingly an appropriately positive quote on the front cover, it examines, as you might expect, the planet of Pandora, the landscape, the flora and the fauna.

But it takes a wider view too. There’s musings on Earth in the mid-22nd century, in decline and with global warming increasingly important, the importance of corporate multinationals such as the Resources Development Administration (RDA) in the future and how to travel interstellar distances, with a discussion of space travel, time and relativity along the journey.

On Pandora itself, the book looks at the science of creating avatars and biological weapons, the evolutionary and sociological mechanics of the Na’vi tribe itself, the ecosystems the planet fosters and the issues of mining. A connection to the imaginary mineral ‘unobtainium’ leads to an analysis of tar sands mining and the effects of extracting such resources. The war between the company and the native tribes leads to an analysis of the weapons used.  The last part of the book looks at the transmigration of Jake Sully as he accepts his non-human future and the potential of a green singularity for all life.    

Mixing scientific facts with space exploration history, extrapolated to the Avatar universe and using the odd sprinkling of SF fiction to illustrate its points, this is a surprisingly entertaining book.

Though I’m not convinced that the target readership is big enough to make this book a best seller (but what do I know?), for fans of the film who want to look at the background behind the film using real science, this will be an interesting read.   

Though there is science here, and that may initially put some readers off, it is written in such an accessible way that the book rarely lectures and mainly entertains. Thirty five short chapters mean that a topic or idea rarely becomes boring. Eight pages of colour images from the production drawings of the film help readers in understanding, or perhaps just reminding, what the spaceships, machinery and characters of the film look like.

Must admit, I wasn’t that sure about the book when I first picked it up. It is a tribute to the writing of scientist and fiction writer Stephen Baxter that the book quickly held my attention. Reminiscent of Arthur C Clarke’s non-fiction books, written to inform and popularise science (Profiles of the Future, for example), this is an appropriately accessible book that allows cinema-lovers to examine the real science that underpins the Avatar story.

Mark Yon, May 2012

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