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10 Possible Sources of "Avatar" in Classic Science Fiction

Going beyond the obvious comparisons with "Ferngully" and "Dances with Wolves"
Article by Avi Abrams

By now many of you have seen James Cameron's epic "Avatar" and marveled at its breakthrough 3D immersion technology. Visually, the movie is beyond breathtaking. Perhaps it can even be compared to the advent of widescreen in movie history.

Plot-wise, however, it is a simple, old-fashioned and perhaps overly familiar adventure, bringing to mind a range of stories from "Pocahontas" to Miyazaki's "Nausicaa" and "Princess Mononoke". Some see this as a drawback, others praise the straightforward approach to story-telling and dialogue - after all, it's one less thing to distract you from the awesome spectacle that unfolds on the screen.

"Yes, it is predictable in a way that roller coaster ride is predictable", says one reviewer. Likewise, it's even possible that the main character was intentionally made somewhat bland and toned down in personality, so that any viewer could identify with the main hero - seamlessly inhabiting his "avatar" to explore the glorious new world of Pandora.

It is not our intention to argue how and if the plot of "Avatar" could've been made better or more original. After all, it is an old-fashioned fairytale; a personal dream of maestro James Cameron many decades in the making.

Instead, we are going to list some possible influences from obscure and even forgotten classic science fiction sources that came to our mind while watching "Avatar" - there is no telling if James Cameron read any of them or was influenced by any particular tradition, but it was a good fun to find out and remember the jolly good reads that they are (see if you can remember any of the stories mentioned below, or if you can think of other ones):

1. Robert F. Young - "To Fell a Tree". First published in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 1959, this obscure and rarely reprinted novella is perhaps the closest to the plot of "Avatar".

A giant tree sacred to humanoid natives razed to the ground by the greedy, crazed human military outfit - the parallels are too many to recount here. Robert F. Young's prose is powerful and efficient, and the ending evokes similar emotional response to that of "Avatar". It is also a criminally under-rated piece of fiction - we can only rejoice that "Avatar" brings it to life to beautifully - but it's also sad to see top-notch science fiction stories by Robert F. Young remain out of print and uncredited for so many years.

The idea of "projected consciousness" into the bodies of natives on hostile planets was also explored at length in classic science fiction. Here are a few examples:

2. Poul Anderson - "Call Me Joe" First published in Astounding Science Fiction in April, 1957. Read more detailed analysis here.

"Like Avatar, Call Me Joe centers on a paraplegic — Ed Anglesey — who telepathically connects with an artificially created life form in order to explore a harsh planet (in this case, Jupiter). Anglesey, like "Avatar"'s Jake Sully, revels in the freedom and strength of his artificially created body, battles predators on the surface of Jupiter, and gradually goes native as he spends more time connected to his artificial body."

3. Ben Bova - "The Winds of Altair" First published as a novel in 1973. Six-legged beasties, remote-control "avatars", greedy terraforming humans.

"The classic SciFi novel tells the story of humans trying to terraform the planet of Altair IV, where they cannot breath the air. The natives of this planet are a cat-like race and humans are able to transfer their minds into these cats in order to explore the planet safely. Throughout the course of the novel, the main character inhabits the body of one of these cats (just like in Avatar) and grows to side with the natives against the Military in the story." (source)

4. Clifford Simak - "Desertion" First published in November 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Same idea: human research team on the surface of a hostile planet needs to inhabit "avatar" bodies more suitable to environment. One small problem - those who were sent did not come back, but "deserted" and remained behind, choosing a more liberating alien culture.

Another work very similar in plot and feel is actually an award-winning piece by a well-known writer:

5. Ursula K. Le Guin - "The Word for World is Forest" (more info). Published back in 1972, in Again, Dangerous Visions, it was even a winner of the 1973 Hugo Award for Best Novella.

Similarities? Well, how about a forested planet with the deeply "connected" natives, a human military raid on a huge tree-city and a subsequent retaliation of natives... some scenes seem incredibly familiar, even though Le Guin plot is markedly deeper and more sophisticated. We highly recommend seeking out this book if you thought the plot of "Avatar" was one-dimensional - it should fill in all the details you would ever need.

Other visual and atmospheric clues (no similarities with the plot):

6. Harry Harrison - "Deathworld" First published in Astounding Science Fiction, January-March 1960. A militaristic gung-ho colonization with disregard for complexities of native life. Top-notch depiction of tough space marines as only Harrison can do it. Extremely hostile life-forms populate that planet: Avatar's quote "everything that crawls, flies or squats out there... will want to kill you" seems right at home with "Deathworld". Highly recommended as a great adventure read.

7. Some other wonderful examples from the Golden Age of Science Fiction also come to mind: "Exploration Team" by Murray Leinster; hilarious interactions between human military colonization force and natives in various stories by Eric Frank Russell ("...And Then There Were None", "Somewhere a Voice", etc.) Various jungle planet environments were nicely explored by Robert A. Heinlein in his juvenile-fiction novels, and also in Bob Shaw's "Who Goes There?".

(on the right - Magazine of F&SF with Robert F. Young's novella "To Fell a Tree")

8. Anne McCaffrey - "The Dragonriders of Pern" series. This is an obvious allusion to exhilarating sequences of taming and riding on dragons - very analogous to the thrilling winged-beast taming in "Avatar".

(image via)

9. Na'vi - Dark Elves, anyone? Or if you'd like, "Elfquest" (more info). A cult comic series started in 1978. There are very broad visual similarities, but I can't stop thinking of dark elves when I look at na'vi ways and romance.

10. The interior and exterior views of the spaceship which brings Jake Sully to Pandora reminds me of Alastair Reynolds "Revelation Space" light-hugger ships (significantly scaled down, of course). The opening sequence can easily serve as an opening for hypothetical "Chasm City" movie, for example. The flying mountains and islands are also a feature of Alastair Reynolds great story "Minla's Flowers".

So here is a brief list of possible influences on visual creation of "Avatar" and examples of classic science fiction that elaborate on the (very basic) "Avatar" plot. Let us know of other similarities you've noticed - after all, just like the case with "Star Wars" we are witnessing the birth of yet another mythology, and it is only proper that we should honor the original sources of this particular science fiction tradition.

For more details on Pandora's gorgeous world visit Pandorapedia site.

BONUS: do you remember the wonderful tiny helicopter-like creature that lit up the night on Pandora? It turns out to be the design of Leonardo da Vinci, no less:

Click to go to "Dark Roasted Blend" site



Blogger Rajko said...

Karl Hansen "Sergeant Pepper"; it's easy to imagine Cameron writing a plot for "Avatar" after having red Hansens novel; soldiers "protecting" exploatation of Titan inhabited by genetically engeneered humans - creatures taller than average Homo sapiens and able to "glide" in dense atmosphere.

3:29 AM  
Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Rajko - yes, I've read "Sergeant Pepper" and loved it. For those curious to find it, here is where the novella was published:

© The Berkley Showcase # 1,
ed. V. Schochet, 1980

Highly recommended, if also obscure, piece of sf writing: great pacing and atmosphere.

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Gene said...

Well-known (in Russia) russian SF writers Arkady and Boris Stroogatsky more than thirty years ago introduced in their books a wild jungle planet of Pandora being full of thrilling exotic predators.

Pure coincedence? Or screenplay writers had kind of nostalgie?

12:29 PM  
Blogger Rajko Ban said...

Gene - are you reffering to "Beetle in the Anthill" (Russian: Жук в муравейнике), 1979?

5:14 AM  
Blogger Rajko Ban said...

Gene - correction, I meant "Snail on the Slope" (Russian: Улитка на склоне, 1968?
(...bugs, snails, slopes and hills - it's easy to get confused)

5:32 AM  
Anonymous Roc said...

Also include the lyrical "Hunter, Come Home" by Richard McKenna (who went on to fame as the author of "The Sand Pebbles"), which describes fluttering, leaflike "phytos" and other weird creatures. The story begins, "On that planet the damned trees were immortal..."

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Joachim said...

I just saw Avatsr today and the story reminded me mostly of Bova's "The Winds Of Altair VI" and of Alan Dean Foster's "Midworld".

6:13 PM  
Anonymous Eon Works said...

The cover of the "Winds of altair" is my favorite from all the pics shown here.

7:24 AM  
Blogger hendoc said...

Alan Dean Foster's "Midworld" is a good candidate in my opinion.

9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you know the Disney movie Pocahontas?
True is is not science fiction, but it is exactly the same plt.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The nearest antecedents that I know of to the floating islands of Pandora are those that feature in the video game Half-Life. Does anyone know of any earlier depictions of or references to floating islands?

4:42 AM  
Blogger diafani said...

Wait, wait! How about "A Case of Conscience" by James Blish? Aliens who live with a giant sacred tree and evil earthlings who want to exploit their planet for minerals to make bombs. The tree is destroyed, etc.. but there's twist, almost an inversion of "Avatar".

4:10 PM  
Anonymous tahlia said...

Fascinating post. You guys sure know a lot about sci fi. I'm impressed.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous tahlia said...

Fascinating post. You guys sure know a lot about sci fi. I'm impressed.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Professor said...

Something that I've not seen mentioned anywhere is the blatant theft of artistic concepts from the artist Roger Dean.

The floating rocks and giant stone arches are images that have been mainstays of his artwork for decades...

12:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised noone's mentioned Bradbury's "Here There Be Dragons". Granted there's no natives on the planet, but it's lot closer to Avatar, then "Soldier" was to Terminator.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Virgil Finlay drew wonderful pictures of floating islands that drifted up and down the pages of either Startling Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories - can't remember which - back in the late 1950's. DRB uses a Bergey babe illo from Startling Stories in the lineup illustrating SF and F Reading Experience.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did not see the Cameron film but Frank Herbert wrote a series of related books, Destination: Void, The Jesus Incident and a few more that used the word "avatar" quite a bit.

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how could you miss Midworld? The invading earth corporation and the native linking with trees and animals is similar. See the Wikipedia summery

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I was looking for Midworld on this list too.

7:55 PM  
Blogger Southwest Manuscripters said...

My first impression was of Burroughs "Barsoom" with a lot of visual connections to John Carter of Mars, as I did when I saw the second half of "Total Recall."

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Richard Bartrop said...

Visually, it's a blend of every Dragon's Dream/Paper Tiger art book ever published.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Ed Tully said...

Many of the works by Edgar Rice Burroughs have been "mined" for hundreds of plots, plot devices, characters, protagonists, antagonists etc. by sf and f novelists, TV and motion picture writers and directors ever since they were first published during the early 20th century. In turn, who knows who or what multiple sources served as his inspirations for the plethora of published material he generated during his very productive lifetime?

To be honest, even though I had been well aware for many years that ERB had written the novel on which all the many "Tarzan" films had been based, I had never taken the time to find and read one of his books. Having been motivated by viewing "John Carter" on the STARZ channel, I started digging into his body of works and was amazed at how immediately familiar much of it seemed. Due, of course, to so many aspects serving as inspiration for so many who followed in the next 100 years along with the explosion of different media formats.

It's ironic that "John Carter" was quickly labeled by many critics as a derivative, boring film because so many aspects of it had already been "done to death" in so many previous films.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous West said...

I think that the exposition in the post was flawed in that you did not offer up enough excuses as to why the plot sucked.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Rich AfterSabbath said...

Some of those Avatar landscapes remind me of Roger Dean, who did a lot of surreal landscapes for album covers in the '70s.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

When I first saw Avatar it had so many plot elements in common with The Forest Between the Worlds, by G. David Nordley, that I thought it had been adapted from the latter. The Forest Between the Worlds in turn seems to have been inspired by Aldiss' Hothouse.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Lee said...

After seeing AVATAR I immediately thought of THE WORD FOR WORLD IS FOREST, but I also thought of HOTHOUSE. Great reading suggestions by everyone. Many thanks.

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Hunter, Come Home" by Richard McKenna is THE seed for this wonderful film. Still, the story of McKenna is monumental.

3:39 AM  
Blogger Steve Harris, MD said...

I see somebody got "Hunter, Come Home" by Richard "Sand Pebbles" McKenna. A lot of worlds in the 60's were all done up into one connected thing, possibly a product of LSD visions. But Asimov's "Green Patches" possibly does it first.

Another alien intelligence that functions like the Yggdrasil life tree, occurs in George R.R. Martin's "A Song for Lya" In that SF you can see a precursor of the druidic old religion "Godwood" trees that connect all life through the wargs in Martin's _Game of Thrones._

5:49 PM  
Blogger AwareOfTheSea said...

To "Anonymous" who asked about floating islands existing before the Half-Life video game, I know there were some awesome ones in Super Mario 64... And, although they weren't in 3-D yet, before 64 there were all kinds of floating islands in Mario games.

Definitely in other games too around the Nintendo 64/GameCube era, just don't remember which games. Zelda had then, I'm sure... Especially in the game "Wind Waker", which is also stylistically very similar to the "Avatar" movie.

9:08 AM  
Blogger anarchist said...

Also 'The Green Star' by Lin Carter. The main character is projected into the body of an alien on a world of giant trees.

8:36 PM  
Blogger goutbulgare said...

the four first book of this serie are from 90's and are very similar to avatar :

pretty sure mr's vatine and cailleteau have read some kind of the book you are mention in this thread.

enjoy ;)

1:42 AM  

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