Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Elephant-men of Avatar 2

Here were trunks, spines, tusks, fangs, claws, tails, paws.  Here was fur, and here was smooth hide.  Here was flesh flowing at will and seeking new shapes.  Here were dark chambers, lit only by flickering fungoid-glow, in which no firm distinction of species existed (Downward to the Earth 165).

Downward-to-the-EarthWord on the street is that James Cameron won’t make a sequel to the award-winning 3D spectacular, Avatar, unless “he feels strongly that the script is excellent enough.”  Sufficient excellence is a funny sort of concept, and I’m not exactly sure what it means, but he could do a lot worse than to adapt Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth (1969). 

I had pretty serious reservations about Avatar before watching it.  I'd read that it was racist, that it staged the conquest of fantasy over sci-fi, that it worshipped a death-god (Douthat, you're awful, but sometimes hilariously so), and that like Titanic it will be unwatchable in 10 years

The consensus among friends of mine whose opinions I respected was that it was visually awesome.  Not worth thinking about, but worth watching.  Initially I resolved not to watch it at all.  Movies can be good and have awesome computer effects, I said to myself, so I’ll wait for them… 

But then I was kidnapped! by this team of insane scientists who were researching methods of coercion and torture.  Seriously!  It was frightening.  They took me to a secret underground laboratory and told me that they would electrocute one kitten for every hour that I resisted watching Avatar.  Innocent, defenseless kittens!  Now, I am a man of strong principles and iron will, but I am not a monster.  So reluctantly I agreed to watch it.  Tell me you wouldn’t have done the same.   This really happened.  I wouldn’t have watched it otherwise.  My time is far too valuable.  Honest.

Well, turns out it sucked.  It totally sucked.  I wasn’t offended by the politics or anything.  The nature-worship was sort of cheesy, but the idea of a sentient biosphere was cool, and I’m positive that Cameron meant well.  But it was still 10 lbs of CGI in a 5 lbs bag.

However, Cameron could totally redeem himself in my eyes if he took a serious, long look at Downward to the Earth as possible source material for the sequel. 

Why, you ask? 

Downward to the Earth, as it happens, is a novel about redemption.  In the far future, Earth has established a far-reaching colonial empire spanning inhabited alien worlds.  Holman’s World (or Belzagor, as the natives call it) is one such planet.  But liberal activists on Earth stir up enough anti-colonial sentiment to successfully lobby for the relinquishment of all colonized planets hosting sentient life back into the possession of their indigenous populations.  The plot of the novel follows Edmund Gundersen, a former sector administrator of Belzagor, who returns once more to his outpost eight years after Relinquishment to atone for his past sins.

Strangely, there are not one but two sentient races on Belzagor, the Nildoror and the Sulidoror.  The Nildoror are massive, elephantlike beings, herbivorous and passive, whom the earthlings exploited as beasts of burden.  The omnivorous Sulidoror, on the other hand, are large, furry bipeds, about one and a half times the size of a man.  Throughout the many years of colonial occupation, the Sulidoror mainly kept to themselves in the mysterious forests of the northern mist country, but Gunderson is surprised, on his return, to find the Sulidoror living alongside of the Nildoror, even in the tropics where he had been stationed.

The Nildoror have this thing, like a religious rite, called Rebirth, that Gunderson has heard only whispers about.  They pilgrimage to the mountain of Rebirth, deep inside the mist country, to undergo it, and Gunderson, racked with guilt, has become obsessed with the idea of participating himself.  But on the way to the mountain, Gunderson comes in contact with one of his former colonist friends, a “dark and chilling saint” named Kurtz (an explicit reference to Heart of Darkness) who has already attempted Rebirth and came out of it writhing in pain, his body a deformed mess of alien biology equipped only for suffering.  “River…death…lost…horror…river…cave…warm…lost…warm…smash…black…go…god...horror…born…lost…born…” he feverishly repeats (116). 

Will Gunderson continue on his pilgrimage or turn in horror from this fleshy manifestation of the deep, twisted darkness he fears he and his kind have imposed upon the planet?  You’ll get no more spoilers from me, but at its core, Downward to the Earth is about the cruelty of Western civilization, the arrogance of the human race, the possibility of redemption and the virtue of estrangement (and maybe also the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs).  These themes match well the message of Avatar, but with an important difference: the natives of Belzagor have no use for human saviors. 

Cameron really wouldn’t have to change much.  Swap out the Sulidoror for the Na’vi and maybe instead of elephant-like aliens, he could have some Pandoran equivalent of the blue whale play the role of the planet’s secondary sentient race.  

No comments:

Post a Comment