Saturday, March 21, 2015

Perils of Pandora (Part I) -- why Avatar (tragically) fails to make us any better

Well it seems we're all going back to Planet Pandora. And why not? With the proclamation of a coming sequel to the blockbuster sci-fi epic Avatar -- no, make that three sequels -- the near-universal response from one and all has been "Sure! Just tell me much money to bring and where to stand in line!" 

Even the recent announcement of a one year production delay hasn't dampened the ardor and anticipation.

James Cameron's epic was the most important science fiction film of the first decade of the 21st Century, least of all because it proved that animation tools have matured enough to portray almost any story. For example, the vivid animal characters in Life of Pi. Or else -- perhaps someday soon -- dolphins piloting starships? 

(An aside: I liked Christopher Nolan's Interstellar even more, in part because it contained more for my inner adult... a theme that I'll develop here.)

But of course, Avatar was about much more than special effects. Director-producer James Cameron often conveys fascinating messages. He wants to entertain everyone, but also to make some members of the audience think. Hence, it is the lessons of Avatar that I plan to engage and dissect here, today... and across two more installments.

Specifically, did James Cameron succeed in his blatant goal with Avatar -- to craft a great teaching moment? *

Okay then, regarding Avatar, let's start by admitting that --

1) James Cameron's heart is in the right place.

Hm, well. In a sci fi context, you can't take the clich├ęd meaning of that statement for granted! In fact, I have no direct knowledge of JC’s cardiopulmonary placement....

Seriously, there's no question that Mr. Cameron means well. He's intent on doing more than just wrestle cash out of the pockets of a billion people. He wants them to behave better. To care more. To broaden their horizons of tolerance, diversity, vision and possibility. Moreover, he's worried about how sketchily we're handling our duty as planetary managers. All of these are causes that I share and that I try (with more limited reach) to convey in works like Earth and Existence

So, I'll not criticize James Cameron for using his art to help make a better world. 

Ah, but with this clear aim, how well did Mr. Cameron succeed? And did this messianic ambition harm his art? Hold that thought.

2) Almost every review of Avatar compares the plot to Dances with Wolves…

…or other classic cautionary tales that preached similar values -- e.g. Pocahantas, Fern Gully, Silent Running, or Ursula K. LeGuin's The Word for World is Forest -- all of them portraying powerfully rapacious and greedy modern people (e.g. male European invaders of North America) in tense conflict with a group or tribe that -- albeit technologically primitive -- possesses superior, earthy wisdom. Whereupon one of the invaders goes native and joins the oppressed tribe, aiming to help them resist his own, morally-misbegotten, original folk.

At surface, that is indeed what we see in Avatar. Some of the sillier, satirical references to this overlap -- such as "Dances with (very tall) Smurfs" or "Lawrence of Ferngully" -- are both snarky and funny. I hear that Cameron takes them in good humor. A successful person can. (Watch: Everything Wrong with Avatar in 4 minutes!)

Now, I prefer storytelling that's less derivative. A bright fellow like James Cameron should be helping to lead Hollywood out of its current creativity-funk -- a dismal cycle of remakes, comic book reworks and rehashing old tropes -- that is resisted with consistency only by Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron. Even Steven Spielberg has retreated (albeit brilliantly) into retelling old tales. Perhaps we just live in cowardly times.

Hence, the derivative-cloned story is not what bothered me about Avatar. When I go see a flick, I adjust expectations and try to enjoy each movie in the spirit that it's offered. Generally, that requires cranking my originality dial way down, along with the logic meter. For Avatar, I then spun up my cool fun and gosh wow and root-for-underdog dials ... and wound up enjoying it immensely!

Alas, A couple of other scales… well… I wish I hadn't been forced to zero them out.

3) A key point: Avatar depicts an evil-westerners-type story unfolding in our future.

Where Dances with Wolves and Pocahantas were set in the past -- and Fern Gully in the approximate-fantasy present -- James Cameron sets his story in a time-to-come, after humanity has had another 200 years of experience, learning and technological progress -- plenty of time to discuss its own flaws, failings and potential for righting wrongs. Its potential for compassion and genius.

Ponder how our own values have grown more broad and subtle, in just the last 50 years, since Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. A journey that’s incomplete! Indeed, Cameron hopes to propel forward our grand conversation about human self-improvement. A conversation that will be taken up by our children, and theirs. A conversation -- and please consider this carefully -- whose past will have included movies like Avatar.

Ponder the irony. Avatar portrays a future in which films like Cameron's have apparently achieved nothing! We have learned zilch, despite the best efforts of billions of sincere people, including James Cameron. The social progress and rising acceptance that emerged from 1945 to 2015 stopped dead, and even reversed.

Oh, there've been changes, between our present and the future shown in Avatar. We've not only become interstellar travelers, but have invented a wondrous method for putting our minds literally into the bodies of other beings and walking around for a mile or more in their skins. (Not too unlike the technology that I posit - but handle very differently - in Kiln People.) The avatar-embedding machinery at the core of the story is potentially the greatest tool for tolerance, empathy and cultural learning imaginable! Indeed, that is how Cameron portrays it being one person. Maybe two.

Indeed, we've just set the stage for Avatar's moral collapse: rooted in the fact that this version of the "dances with others" scenario is set in a depressingly ordained-awful future.
Consider.  With Pocahantas and Dances With Wolves, the audience contemplates the folowing implicit lesson:

"We come from a savage past, when immature ancestors did terrible things, while a few heroes lit candles in the darkness. Those mistakes still cling to us. Let's learn from our past and continue to do better."

In sharp contrast - and without intending it - by setting the very same story in the future, Cameron preaches:

"Humans are hopelessly rotten. They will be oppressors with horrible institutions, no matter how advanced we get and no matter how many tools of empathy we develop.
"Films like this one won’t help, either.
 "Give up."

To be clear -- that's not what he meant to teach!  

But it is exactly how people felt, upon leaving the theaters.

            “I wish I were Na’vi, instead of a cursed human.
            "Or worse – an American.
            “I can’t wait till the next time I can revisit Pandora and pretend I am defeating scuzzy humans!
            "Especially Americans.”

 4)  A movie asserting to be all about native tribal life and ecology ignores everything we know about either. 

While seated in the audience, enjoying the color, beauty and action of Avatar, we are so busy being visually awed -- and receiving let's-all-cooperate-with-nature messages -- that we blithely accept a raft of contradictions. For example:

(a) On Earth, all functioning ecosystems are about competition, predation and death. Animals in nature endure lives that are vastly more tense and fretful than ours, not more placid and relaxed. Hunger lurks just ahead. Brutal attack and death are always on the minds of predator and prey and almost everyone, even the lion, dies violently. In other words, Disney lied to us.

But on Pandora? Sure we do glimpse a couple of predators and some hunting by the Na'vi, but all of it softened and isolated. Nature, for the most part, is a cross between Lewis Carroll and Land of the Sugarplum Fairies.

(b) The Na'vi are a warrior people! Worthy of respect, much as we are taught to respect the Lakota (Sioux) - the tribe that gets all the motion pictures about Native Americans, from Little Big Man to Dances With Wolves. And okay, the Na'vi sure do act like noble warriors cloned from the American plains... except...

... except who have these "warriors" been fighting, all those years and eons before Earthlings came?

At least in Dances With Wolves there's no evasion. The Lakota are shown as what they gladly acknowledged themselves to be, at the time – a brutally violent people, yet somehow noble and endearing -- while the equally violent whites were not.

Okay. Fine. But in Avatar that whole background is wiped away from view. They get to be gruff, adorably macho warriors, without any context of endlessly vicious tribal war.

(c) As if to illustrate that fact, just like in Dances With Wolves, the "noble" natives in Avatar come that close to treacherously slaying the protagonist several times, once by a cowardly arrow in the back, without the slightest personal grievance or provocation from either Lieutenant Dunbar or Jake Sully, offering them no opportunities to honorably defend themselves.  In the Costner film, they are dissuaded by a medicine man saying "let's not kill him today." In Avatar, the same brief mercy derives from magical (or coincidental) symbolism. Ah, how admirably better that is, than -- say -- due process of law.          

There are scads of similar oversimplifications that do not strengthen James Cameron's case. But the key point is that none of them were necessary, even under the pressure of a 3 hour run-time. The story and lessons could have been conveyed, with the same visuals and characters and overall plot, without patronizing us. Without pressing the director's thumb on the scale.

Which brings us to a major point --

5) The Na'vi are portrayed as justified to be both obstinate and incurious. 

Indeed, some of the traits that Hollywood adores in the upper plains nomads were despised by many neighboring tribes of the time. Obdurate insistence on tribal changelessness, macho-male dominance and utter unwillingness to adapt to powerful new ways. (Except adopting the white man's weapons which, of course, the Na'vi do, as well.) Utter contempt for any thought of compromise. Plus a recurring rash impulsiveness that kept giving the most evil-despicable 19th Century white men hypocritical excuses to start the next war. 

Why do no sympathetic Hollywood movies sing paeans to tribes who exhibited traits like calmness, curiosity and adaptability, as shown by the Iroquois and Cherokee nations, who -- by the way -- respected women and who invented democratic methods that were models to the American founders? Tribes whose principal heroes included diplomats, inventors and intellectuals -- like Hiawatha and Sequoia -- instead of always brave, reckless raiders on horseback? Hey, I don’t disdain the admirable qualities of Crazy Horse; he deserves his new monument in the Black Hills! But for Hollywood to fixate only on that kind of Native American hero isn't respectful. It is yet another kind of patronization.

Getting back to Avatar, it is one thing to see a native people who are in tune with their world preaching to us that we should try this at home. Terrific. Yay, that!

But it is quite another to be finger-wagged by folks who never faced the temptations that we faced, and who yawn in complete lack of interest when they meet people who are able to cross the vast gulf between the f%#ng stars!

All right, compassion, love, courage and eco-oneness rank high in the pantheon of traits. But right after those, can you think of any gift more admirable than curiosity? In Avatar, there are humans who express all four!

Show me one Na'vi who does.

6) Other critics: The White Messiah Complex.

This brings us to one of the more obvious criticisms of Avatar, bruited by reviewers like David Brooks and John Podhoretz, who bemoan the “white messiah complex.”

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic... that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades... that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.” -- writes David Brooks.

Hm, well… duh? And you’re shocked, shocked (!) that a film-maker who is gambling hundreds of millions of dollars would go with a core protagonist who is guaranteed familiarity and viewer identification in his core audience? Ever hear of a film called Rapa Nui? I didn’t think so.

No, I won’t carp on James Cameron for centering his story upon Jake Sully. The creator of Sarah Connor and the kickass girl-marines of Aliens has nothing to apologize for.  We owe him some benefit of the doubt.

Indeed, one could reverse the complaint. Clearly, the most relentless preaching in Avatar is not about the technological or tactical or messianic talents of Jake Sully, but the moral and esthetic superiority of the Na’vi, along with the beyond-all-redemption vileness of every aspect of western civilization.

== Sympathy for the alien… and ourselves? ==

Elsewhere I talk about our quirky Western/American habit of relentless self-criticism. Our reflex to dismiss our own culture’s value while extolling the other. (See my essay: The Dogma of Otherness.) Sure, it’s not universal, even among Californians -- we all know plenty of neighbors who display smug insularity, chauvinistic nativism and even xenophobia. But the counter-trend has been powerful for more than two generations, and it has won more battles than it lost.

For example the widespread notion that ‘greater wisdom’ is to be found in eastern mysticism has ranged from the very real value that Steve Jobs got from his years in an ashram, to the mild sense of no-excuses discipline my kids received from their karate instructor... all the way to the hysterically pathetic reverence that Star Wars fans give to a nasty little faux-guru sock puppet named “Yoda,” who never does or says a single thing that’s verifiably wise, or even helpful! At the far extreme are those westerners who reflexively despise everything about their own culture and give unlimited excuses for anything that's not.

Consider how this theme -- “us is bad; others is good” - often plays in science fiction films. Aliens have to be pretty darned vicious and ugly (e.g. Independence Day) in order to fill the villain role. And District Nine showed that even nasty appearance no longer disqualifies the other from sympathetic treatment.        

Look, I know this cultural phase is necessary, in order to help break lots of bad-old habits that go back 60 centuries. My own life-long fascination (in both science and fiction) with the other -- ranging from the expanse of human diversity to animal minds, to possible alien or artificial intelligences -- surely stems from the Otherness meme that I absorbed from an early age. I'm glad of this cultural innovation, and I try my best to help promote it.

Alas, we are prevented from even noticing that this meme is operating. Or the blatant fact that it is special, recent, and mostly unique to the neo-west. Name one another culture that ever preached to its children: “admire any other civilization but always criticize your own!  No prior people did that. Indeed, no other culture benefited as much as we have from relentlessly seeking our own flaws and finding the positive in others. Or incorporating a goulash of cultures within itself.

We now view diversity as strength! And we got to that point by relentlessly self-criticizing 6000 year old habits of intolerance that most cultures took for granted.
All right, that’s a difficult irony to convey. Though the brilliant 1980s sci fi film Alien Nation managed to do it, combining some of the traditional, otherness-moralistic chiding with a few grains of rare praise and approval.

 That film taught the audience a more subtle lesson:

            “You people still have a long, long way to go, before you're truly decent or civilized.
            "But you are getting better! You’ve come far, in fact.
            "And we believe you can go farther still.”
Is that so hard to do? Mix in a little attaboy reinforcement, amid the chiding?

Apparently it is. Because outside of Alien Nation – and Star Trek, of course – I can think of no other example from Hollywood, where the intolerance-scolding message was ever sweetened with a little encouragement. A little hope.

It could easily have been done, in Avatar.  But it wasn’t.


*A personal footnote: I don't hold against Cameron my own temporal misfortune - that Kevin Costner's film version of my novel The Postman opened the same week as -- and was crushed in theaters by Cameron's Titanic! C'est la vie and folks can read elsewhere what I think of Costner's flick


Continue to... Part II: How James Cameron might still set things right...

                 or  Part III: Can Avatar be 'Fixed'?

                     Part IV: A Speculative Addendum


Anonymous said...

Not Hollywood, of course, but Doctor Who? is good with the "Attaboys!"

Laurent Weppe said...

"perhaps someday soon -- dolphins piloting starships? "

Sword of the Stars movie?
Shut the fuck up and take my money


"all of them portraying powerfully rapacious and greedy modern people (e.g. male European invaders of North America) in tense conflict with a group or tribe that -- albeit technologically primitive -- possesses superior, earthy wisdom"

I for one subscribes wholeheartedly to the fan theory that the Na'Vi are alien Eloi: the whole ecosystem is waaaaaaaaay to tailored to provide to them to be the result of mere blind darwinian selection.
The way I (and many others) see it, the Na'Vi forefathers created what they saw as the perfect artificial habitat: a world where they could interface with all the fauna administrated by a a giant planet-sized supercomputer melded with the very flora: an Eden which didn't need maintenance and led them to revert to hunter-gatherer societies. Hell, perhaps it was their goal all along: maybe they were space-faring rousseauist who wanted to create a society of Noble Savage and used Pandora as their final haven. Or perhaps they were a minority in a very advanced society which had the technology and resources necessary to indulge their rousseauist brethren and use Pandora as a giant social experiment: "You want to come back to neolithic lifestyle? Ok, Fine, here's a large moon at the verge of our empire, we'll terraform it and put a bio-computer to oversee it, so go here and try to prove us that your fantasy lifestyle is better than our ┼ĺcumenopolises."

In such a reading, the natives far from being technologically inferior, hell, they still use their awesome hyper-advanced tech on a daily basis to the point that it's become so natural that they don't realize anymore that it's technology (perhaps we should add another corollary to Clark's final law: "any sufficiently advanced technology that's been around for a sufficiently extended period is indistinguishable from taking a piss") and the finale may be the part when Pandora's bankian Mind finally get fed up with the haughty earthling barbarians and finally starts punching back.

Jumper said...

Avatar sucks. End of story.

Tony Fisk said...

We've discussed the mistakes of Avatar before, where I've tended to be an apologist for Cameron.

I've shifted my view to saying things can be fixed, while recognising there were things that shouldn't have needed fixing in the first place. I regard this topic as being sub-titled 'Attaboy, James!'

I enjoy the exercise of 'fixing' messages in stories (eg the casual way in which Anakin goes full rogue... bleagh!), and I've got some ideas how Cameron could work his way out of the Pandoran bogs he's gotten into (nasty earthlings, noble Nav'indian warriors with no competition or curiosity*, limb numbers). Still, this is David's blog, and he's got more experience at this sort of thing. I'll wait for part II before offering my suggestions.

*Or compassion for others. I will say one thing here: recall, at the end of the big battle, how Neytira goes looking for Jake and revives him? What does she say? What is its significance?

David Brin said...

Laurent I think you will be pleased with the direction that I will take Parts II and III of my Avatar series. Great minds think alike?

Alex Tolley said...

The social progress and rising acceptance that emerged from 1945 to 2015 stopped

Progress has advanced in some areas, but not in others. There is plenty of avaricious resource extraction going on today in parts of the world. Chevron's mining in the Amazon being a good example. While it may not be as bad as what happened in the 19th century, the sheer scale compensates. In other business areas, e.g. banking, I would hardly say that we have progressed at all. Today's bankers make those in Michael Lewis's "Liar's Poker" (1984) look like wimps. Not ALL HUMANS are rotten, just a few, as are companies and governments.

If the Na'Vi are not warriors, but peace loving natives, then there is going to be a plot problem. They won't know how to fight back against the humans and will be wiped out. This was one problem that H G Wells' time traveler had with the Eloi. They couldn't be made to fight the Molochs.

Or incorporating a goulash of cultures within itself. Ancient Rome was very open to giving full citizenry to other cultures it conquered. Much more so than western civilization does today, albeit our conquering is more cultural and economic. And yes I do know they also acquired slaves from conquered nations which balances the last statement. :(

I can think of no other example from Hollywood, where the intolerance-scolding message was ever sweetened with a little encouragement. A little hope.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1954) ?

It seems to me that movies were very intolerant during the post WWII period, became more tolerant and hopeful in the 1970's and have become more intolerant again since the 1980's. Look at how unscolding and intolerant the very successful "American Sniper" is. Is it the zeitgeist?

Alex Tolley said...

"Gentlemen's Agreement" - scolding anti-semitism in America, although only a very little cause for hope at the end.

"12 Angry Men" - scolding the intolerance and bigotry of the jury, yet offering some hope that good people could end it and that bigots could learn why they were so and thence change (voting innocent).

Alex Tolley said...

I suppose one could argue that "Dirty Harry" was about scolding liberal values, but by later movies, while not embracing them, being more tolerant than extremely intolerant colleagues.

raito said...

Ah, I see we're still at least partially on the 'going native' thread.

Edmond Hamilton, in Weird Tales, September 1944, in Shadow Folk, has the protagonist go native. Sure, he mostly does so for a woman, but also because he wants to teach the Shadow Folk to get along better in a world encroaching on theirs.

And for the record. Avatar is somewhere between Anderson and Foster, and inferior to either. But it is shiny.

David Brin said...

Guys your examples of critical-but optimistic hollywood images are pretty lame. Sure, many tales have happy endings! And some show hope that here or there there may be progress. Show me examples where the lesson is "wow, we've all made some real moral progress! That's real reason to believe we can make lots more!" Star Trek, Stargate, Alien Nation. Others? Rare as hens teeth

David Brin said...

Okay... sometimes Dr. Who

Greco said...

Bizarre move, Raito, going laterally from a film to literature. Regardless, thank you for the objective Standard of Quality you've bestowed upon Western Civilization. May all art be judged in its light.

Dr. David, somewhat disappointed you didn't underscore the very real fact that Cameron acknowledges and embraces all of his antecedents. (And did so from the start). If you haven't already, absolutely look up his recent court declaration — it's a nice overall reminder of his contributions to human happiness.

I'm also thrilled to find out that "genre" has come to mean "plagiarism" and "derivative."

Are your grapes turning sour? I don't understand — you've already established your legacy, and it's a good one.

Cameron used the matrix of proven story architecture to dazzle us with cinematically rare visual fantasia.

Better go back in time and stop that Modesto D-student from trying the same thing.

You excoriate those that harp on the civilization that feeds them — yet these forces, loud and un-clever they may be, are directly responsible for the survival and outright dominance science fiction enjoys today.

It'd be a very revealing chart: the difference in effort between writing a movie "review" (actually: an attack) on io9 and making an Avatar.

Hysterically Pathetic said...

Fun article, but "hysterically pathetic reverence that Star Wars fans give to a nasty little faux-guru sock puppet named 'Yoda'?" As a life-long Star Wars fan who has spent hours discussing the movies with friends, I have never heard any of them say anything even remotely reverent about Yoda, beyond his "cuteness." I think you are just inventing this supposed "reverence," it does not exist. Even the guy you link to, says he got more hate mail for dissing BASIC than he did for dissing Yoda.

Treebeard said...

I wonder if it’s really true that we’re the first culture to dislike ourselves and celebrate “the Other” like we do. My guess is that there have been others, but they’re all dead and buried now...

You say this is a necessary cultural phase, but how do you know this if no culture has been here before? What cultural roadmap are you using, and where did you get it? Maybe this phase is necessary in the sense that all civilizations die, and therefore must have a terminal phase?

Personally, I don’t much care for art as propaganda, designed to inculcate values into society according to some over-arching ideology. As I recall, the Soviet Union was big on that sort of thing, and who remembers Soviet art today? I’m just looking for art that is powerful, that holds up a mirror to the human condition, even if glorifies non-progressive values. The Godfather and Goodfellas were masterpieces, compared to which every Star Trek movie is utter dreck, but I doubt they got us any closer to the Federation Future. And that’s just fine by me.

Pmathews1939 said...

Since it's obvious that the Na'vi are not native to the planet,there has been a lot of speculation as to the reason they were brought/
planted/ created there. Your comment on their "shoot-first" mentality opens up two new possibilities:

1) They're rent-a-cops. More politely, security guards. Tasked with keeping potential invaders out.

2) It's a penal colony for the incorrigibly warlike.

rewinn said...

//*They're rent-a-cops. More politely, security guards. ...*//

Heh. I haven't participated in much discussion of the movie, but it's pretty obvious there's some sort of huge intelligence or culture or *something* running the Tree Memory Storage Device, floating the sky islands, and stuff. If humans could grow Na'vi bodies in a tank, surely the more technologically advanced ?culture? could do no less, perhaps using residual DNA found on first contact probes for creating what it ?thought? would be recognizable ambassadors.

The most admirable human in "Avatar" was the female scientist who was working on bridging the gap, and therefore had to die so that the plot could advance. You can't sell tickets to a movie where people sit down and work things out like reasonable people.

Tacitus said...

Possibly your best post in recent times.


TCB said...

Couple of disconnected thoughts. First:

This reminds me a bit of why I dislike Forrest Gump, the Tom Hanks movie. I had really enjoyed the novel; picaresque and hilarious. The movie, though. It was like the script had been doctored by Rush Limbaugh. It gives us a view of the 1960's where the hippies, Black Panthers and antiwar activists are hypocrites, thugs, sexually dissolute creeps, etc., etc. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon is a nice fellow. In the movie, Gump gets rich because his shrimp boat is the only one not smashed by a hurricane (Gawd Himself wanted Forrest to prosper!) In the book, Forrest never runs a shrimp boat; instead, he learns shrimp farming from an old Vietnamese man.

So, yeah. A nasty message can totally ruin a well-mounted story for me. As for Cameron, his stories are usually middlebrow at best in their deeper implications. This is why I love Nolan so much! He gives us Cameron-level gosh-wow but also solid intellectual fiber.

Second: an interesting question is whether it's worth going to another solar system to steal resources. It takes so much energy and effort to get there that whatever resource you're taking would need to be concomitantly valuable and hard to get. Seems to me that by the time you can reliably do that, you also have the technology to synthesize whatever compounds you desire, from local asteroids and such in any high-metallicity star system. There are going to be lots of uninhabited systems around so that you can afford to leave the Na'vi alone...

There's an exception, though. Earth is a world with active geology and water, which over many millions of years has done a fine job of concentrating various elements into compounds and substances which may indeed be hard to get elsewhere. I was born, by chance, into the little mountain town that produces the purest quartz on the planet.

The other thing that might be worth going across space for is the unique genetic heritage of a world, and all the things only made by living organisms there. (In Farscape, astronaut John Crichton complains that he's missinng a little thing called chocolate, found nowhere else in the cosmos that we know of.

But, you know, aliens coming to gank our water? They could have got that in the outer system without even telling us.

David Brin said...

VARIOUS REPLIES (now that I am back from an exhausting trip to "Spaceport America" near Truth of Consequences NM, doing some Hi Def camera-appearance time.

Greco — typically for today’s snark-and-skim world, you skimmed in order to justify a strawman version of what I wrote, and that makes you an out-and-out liar. Show me where I used the word “plagiarism.” In fact, in many places in my article I acknowledged James Cameron’s good humor. Admit it. You did not ACTUALLY read even a single paragraph.

But your true sin is not being a nasty skimmer.It is incuriosity. In your leap to defend a man who does not need your defense, you denied yourself the chance to ponder and argue over some new thoughts… the ones I actually raised here. Not the churlish childish ones you brought to the table here.

Hysterically pathetic.. sorry but your name is apt. Seriously, I am glad you and your friends see through Yoda. So do I. Then your issue is…? If you do not know SCADS of SW fans who adore the oven mitt, then seriously? You do not get out much.

Treebeard is the endless source of ironic hilarity that locum used to be, before he got all serious. Amazing! This blatantly evident product of individualist egotism propaganda, mixed with the firehose stream of feudalist nostalgism that he suckled since he was a baby, actually thinks he INVENTED those brave stands! Instead being himself a stunning example of a product of relentless “message” propaganda.

Patricia, good thoughts. Their blatant similarity to Earth humans does make one think.

Randy… you are zeroing in on my alternate scenario.

Alex Tolley said...

Guys your examples of critical-but optimistic hollywood images are pretty lame. Sure, many tales have happy endings! And some show hope that here or there there may be progress. Show me examples where the lesson is "wow, we've all made some real moral progress!

This statement shows why arts cannot be judged like the natural world. Art impacts people on an emotional level, and is highly subjective and therefore an opinion only.

Let's take your promotion of Star Trek. Who has morally advanced? I assume you mean teh Federation and the crew of the Enterprise. Plenty of social critique happens (scolding 1960's US society), but do any of the crew actually morally improve? I don't see any. Cite examples where Kirk/McCoy/Scotty/Sulu/Uhura morally improve as a result of a situation they encounter. (Spock doesn't count as he is Human/Vulcan).

We cab therefore take any historical situation that we have advanced from and make a movie scolding the practice, and even showing how some protagonists change their morals. And we know from history that society follows. Slavery, racism, treatment of women, treatment of animals, etc. etc. Any movie that depicts the anti-semitism of the Germans in WWII, yet shows compassion by some Germans will fit this template. As will change of mind by African big game hunters, or treatment of African-Americans.

Science fiction has it easy. Any supposed morally enlightened future can be imagined to contrast with society today. Yet the real struggle to get to that future is not addressed. The BBC has a nice 3-part series on the history of the women's suffragette movement. What most of us see as a much fairer society today (although there are still ways to go on gender equality) was a long (centuries) struggle, with powerful forces arrayed against the path to equality. The Star Trek Federation might well be morally enlightened but how did they get there? The Star Trek franchise has reduced that moral improvement IMO, with the Federation looking increasingly like a US dominated UN willing to use coercive force. A reflection (scolding?) of current society.
["The Shape of Things to Come" (1936) is perhaps my best example of a movie that fits your premise. ].

I personally find re-watching movies of the last century from today's vantage far more uplifting. The afore-mentioned "12 Angry Men", or "In the Heat of the Night" come to mind. "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" is a more lighthearted example. "Amazing Grace" (2006) is a more contemporary movie about the abolition of slavery in England.These movies were all the more powerful because the new morality was still in the minority. Today US society (and elsewhere) seems to be unwinding a number of those moral gains, and we have yet to see the outcome. It may well be a set back for liberal morality. As an ex-pat Brit, the recent rise of religious conflict with secular, enlightenment society certainly looks like a backwards step compared to where we were in the 1960's. Women's groups in the US fighting against women's rights mirrors that seen a century or 3 ago.

Finally, movies depicting moral advance are likely rare because in the real world individuals don't tend to change their minds, as the commenters on this blog make quite clear. Society changes as old attitudes die out and are replaced by new ones. Just as we see with evolution, although societies also have horizontal meme transfer to speed things up a little].

Alex Tolley said...

@Patricia "Since it's obvious that the Na'vi are not native to the planet"

The quadruped/hexapedal issue has been noted. I personally think this was simple laziness on the part of Cameron. It would also have made the controlling of a hexapod avatar very difficult for humans.

You would think that the scientists would have speculated on such a difference. Simple genetic analysis to determine the tree of life on Pandora would help resolve the issue.

Cameron is also obviously in love with bioluminescent aquatic forms. The creatures on Pandora would not have been out of place in the underwater dwelling of the aliens in "The Abyss".

@TCB - wasn't the point that "Unobtanium" a unique material unavailable elsewhere and not synthesizable. It is just a plot device to set the background. In reality, we would probably fill the solar system with habitats long before we would ever try to send humans in large star ships to exo planets. Interstellar mineral extraction is the least likely driver for interstellar trips. The genetic material of Pandora would be much more valuable.

Alex Tolley said...

One objection to the Na'vi being non native is the four-limbed

These may be unrelated to the Na'vi, evolutionary ancestors or even "degenerate" forms. To ensure world building consistency, these have to be explained too.

TCB said...

@ Alex Tolley:

The genetic material of Pandora would be much more valuable.

My point exactly. The Earthlings were after the wrong resource... As I recall, the unobtainium in Avatar was for energy purposes, which makes sense as a McGuffin and a commentary on (for instance) petroleum.

But really, if you can get spacecraft there at all, it means you've cracked the energy problem rather thoroughly.

The biological products of Pandora are the truly unique trade good, and it's reasonable to suppose that trade would be the way to get them.

Alex Tolley said...

if you can get spacecraft there at all, it means you've cracked the energy problem rather thoroughly.

I agree. also I agree that it was likely a comment on our oil companies (although it could also include other minerals).

Trading in genetic information would be far more beneficial to the Na'vi and derail the plot. That biological planetary computer would also be a valuable trade item. What would the Na'vi want in trade?

rewinn said...

" any of the crew actually morally improve?...".

ST:TOS suffered from being an episodic adventure series - the characters could not change because they had to be the same next week. Occasionally at the end of an episode they were able to reflect on Learned A Valuable Lesson: even ugly monsters can have a POV ("Devil In The Dark"); really advanced civilizations don't fight over planets ("Errand of Mercy");

But they can't change their basic beliefs because of the structure of the show.

Later ST series had a stronger arc structure, and this might have allowed for character growth (as distinct from character development). This is most obvious as the kids grow up, go to Starfleet Academy, make mistakes from which they learn. But some of the others develop clearly - Captain Cisco and Major Kira both transition from an angry, justly bitter people into thoughtful leaders as a result of the moral choices they encounter along their arcs.

David Brin said...

Unobtanium was not about "energy" fer heaven's sake! Didn't you see it was contra-gravitational?

And you guys still don't get what I mean about movies showing human improvement. In alien Nation and Star Trek and Stargate we are shown on average behaving better than our self-flaggelatory cliches about ourselves. And actively commenting on that fact, while also on how much farther we have to go.

Alex Tolley said...

And you guys still don't get what I mean about movies showing human improvement.

Maybe we have a failure to communicate. Why not provide an example to illustrate your point instead. Choose a Star Trek example as we all have seen those, especially ST:TOS.

Alex Tolley said...

Didn't you see it was contra-gravitational?

So why didn't the star ship or the shuttles use it?

From Wikipedia:

The film is set in the mid-22nd century, when humans are mining a room-temperature superconductor called unobtanium


Unobtanium (pronounced un-ub-TAIN-e-um) is a highly valuable mineral found on the moon Pandora. Humans mined for unobtanium to save the Earth from its energy crisis;

Looks like TCB was correct.

sociotard said...

Worth reading and contemplating (not swallow whole without thinking, but certainly spend a moment contemplating):
Is a New Political System Emerging in This Country?
1) The real primaries are not Iowa and New Hampshire, but events just for the .1% in Las Vegas, Rancho Mirage, and Sea Island.
3) De-legitimization of Congress and the Presidency

Do give it a read.

Catfish N. Cod said...

I don't know if Laurent is right and the Na'vi are Eloi, but Pandora's ecosystem is far too convenient to be natural. Add in unobtainium being a part of the environment and the whole biosphere becomes obviously artifactual -- possibly with post-design Darwinian modification, as in Niven's Ringworld.

That said, while people certainly would *settle* Mars before Alpha Centauri, it's also true that having a living world in the next system over *would* be worth the heroic effort of a base for the xenobiology alone. Doubly so for designed xenobiology, triply so for unobtainium. There's no end of the potential bioengineering applications for knowing the envelope of behaviors for non-Terran protoplasm. The only thing I think is hilarious about the Pandora scenario is resource extraction; I don't care how valuable the stuff is, you can't haul enough unobtainium over 4.3 light years with 22nd century STL to make bulk shipments worthwhile. You just need the samples to figure out how to synthesize the stuff.

Alex is also right -- just hauling a few genome sequencers out to Pandora, or a few kilograms' worth of samples back to Sol, would tell you in a hot second how much design work was done on Pandora's life. I speak professionally on this topic.

Dr. Brin, Hollywood (big and small screen alike) tend to be lily-livered cowards on advocating future moral advances, because of fear of boycotts. It's much, much safer to celebrate *past* moral advances: Good Night and Good Luck, Selma, Monuments Men. Science fiction is not immune to this problem, which is as alive today as it was when Roddenberry snuck his liberal utopia under the Network's noses as "Wagon Train to the Stars". When they do portray improved morality, it's much more common to show the first few members of a vanguard (Our Heroes) rather than showing a society improving. Such tales make the Powers That Be nervous.

That said, I also celebrate the massive reduction in cynical attitudes that has taken place in the last 50 years. The media of the 1970's and 1980's assumed a depraved mankind about to destroy itself and its environment and often deserving it. Even today's popular dystopias (Hunger Games, Divergent) don't go as far as, say, Silent Running or Threads.

Alex Tolley said...

@Catfish "it's much more common to show the first few members of a vanguard (Our Heroes) rather than showing a society improving. Such tales make the Powers That Be nervous."

A good ST:TOS example is that the federation crews are integrated with aliens, yet when Kirk kissed Uhura on the set, it caused a serious flurry of criticism about this cross racial kiss. This was when mixed marriages were rare and articles in newspapers written about whether this would cause problems for the couple and their children. Watching a fantasy was one thing, but when real people actually dared to enulate what the fantasy was suggesting - oh my.

locumranch said...

Of course, we are not the first culture to celebrate 'Otherness'. As evidenced by the Fall of Rome, the Weimar Republic and Barbet's ' The Napoleons Of Eridanus', this desire for distraction (otherness) is an expression of cultural desperation, a symptom of decline rather than vitality, wherein a dying culture seeks engagement (and/or salvation) in an external other. Likewise, the Noble Savage trope (representing the implicit rejection of the civilized meme) is little more than an admission of cultural bankruptcy.

Like the Romans in Decline, we seek salvation, rejuvenation AND destruction from an external barbarian horde. Lacking the will to attend to our own ongoing cultural needs, we outsource those needs to an external other, become increasingly dependent on them (the other) for labour, industry & inspiration, until our utter dependence on others makes them our betters, masters & destroyers.

This game, better known as 'Waiting for the Barbarians', is also known as 'Who will save us from ourselves?'. It the favorite pastime of society in decline, to look outward, ever outward, as it crumbles from within, hoping against hope that the some benevolent ALIEN will come & save us and, if all else fails, we create these aliens by 'uplifting' our own.


David Brin said...

Paraphrasing: "I'm against and hate everything! Don't that make me seem strong and superior? And I am too much a coward to ever ever ever actually suggest anything."

locumranch said...

Not hardly.

I respect & enjoy your work.

Just pointing out the subtext that (1) Alien = Others = Outsider = Not-US, (2) Insider = US, and (3) (Christian) Salvation = Destruction.

In our version of 'Point/Counterpoint', feel free to call me Jane.


PS: Great graphics in Avatar. Too bad its (idiot) plot sucks.

David Brin said...

Wholly mackeral. Several friendly words! Yipe. I am all turned round.

Tony Fisk said...

In meeting David's Hollywood moral challenge, I will note that movies tend to provide oblique commentary on events of the day. Since the the opening years of this century have been a little less than auspicious in the improved morals area (at the political level), recent movies have had a bit of an uphill battle.

It was easier in the nineties, when shows like Babylon 5 were willing to take on the task of Universe construction (and deconstruction). With its complex political mix of noble aspirations and dastardly betrayals, I can think of B5 as 'how we might get to Star Trek... eventually'. It starts about 250 years from now, with a fragile Earth, recovering from a near wipe-out by the Minbari, establishing a meeting point for the various star-faring races. The hope is that tragic misunderstandings like the Earth-Minbari War can be avoided. At one level, this hope fails as the Elder Races begin to subtly manipulate the various younger races (including Earth Government) to fight an increasingly less subtle game of chess. At another level, Sheridan is able to use B5 as a symbol to rally enough support of his own to confront the massed armadas of Vorlon and Shadow with their failed agendas, and tell them to 'Get the hell out of our galaxy'. Humanity (and other races) is then left to sort its own messes out.

This 'morality from below' is a theme Straczyncki touches on later. In the first 'Thor' movie, a brash and arrogant 'God' gets taught a little humility by some mere mortals.

The messages of Hollywood may be stuck in the events of the day, but maybe the rest of us can move on. Having made reference to 'District 9' above, I note that Blomkamp's later offerings ('Elysium', 'Chappie') have been met with a rising level of criticism at the downtrodden societies he has as a backdrop. Maybe we don't need another Mad Max? (Tough! I gather we will be getting one later in the year)

Ah, well. I admit this is all a bit metaphorical. So I shall cede the point, while suggesting it needn't always be so.

Laurent Weppe said...

"Unobtanium was not about "energy" fer heaven's sake! Didn't you see it was contra-gravitational?"

Sure, unobtanium is more of a metaphor for rare earths than oil, but the core idea's the same: it's a valuable resource being exploited with little to no regard for the well-being of the people who live on top of the aforementioned resource.


Regarding Yoda's "faux-guru" I have a very different reading of the Star Wars series:
First and foremost: one has to take into account the fact that Lucas writing is all other the place when he doesn't have a wife or a competent director looking behind his shoulder and keeping him focused (kinda like Roddenberry when you think about it: on one hand he created Star Trek, on the other, not letting him alone to write episodes and plotlines was required to keep the series from devolving into an unholy mess).

When you take the time to untangle the rather dismal execution of the first trilogy to examine the individual building blocks, a lot of the story actually makes sense, and Yoda in particular has an interesting character arc.

Now, let's take the Jedi order: sure, its methods (take kids at a very young age to train them away from their family) look cruel and excessive, but look at what Force can do: force users can crush your chest with their minds, and if you're not strong-willed enough, rewire your brain with an afterthough, so of course a organization dedicated to teach people not to abuse such power is going to want to take in apprentices when they're as young as possible and do everything it can to teach them that asceticism, self-control and emotional detachment are the highest virtues attainable.

Finally, let's look at where Yoda stands: he's an old pillar of the order: a muppet who taught many disciples over the centuries, and who lived long enough to see the dawn of an era where the methods and customs of the institution he dedicated his life to ceased to be effective. So while he may looks on the surface like the archetypal Wise Old Mentor who guides the Chosen One on the path to greatness, he's more of a failed teacher: a vestige of a bygone era who outlived his own relevance but who inherit the mentoring role by default since a new -and more adapted to the times- generation of teachers has yet to appear.

Midboss57 said...

If you're looking for another sci fi series that is optimistic about human morality in the future, the poster child for why licensing laws desperately need to be reviewed: the anime Macross and its sequels might be a good watch.
In these series, humanity is more often than not the more reasonable and well intentioned species out there, being overall more moral than current humanity (series takes place 21st century) but still not perfect yet. For a few highlights: humanity has unified (albeit not without bumps as Macross Zero shows us), has in a few decades managed to rebuild from getting Earth nuked from orbit and start colonizing space, has made peace and integrated with said aliens that nuked them from orbit (which is a level of forgiveness nothing short of saintly), has an AI singer reach superstar status...
Most of the conflicts in there series are the result of misunderstandings from both sides that humanity manages to end once proper communications are set up.
The series is also a nice change in that it balances the need for soldiers and diplomats showing the best results come when both work together and the main heroes themselves aren't above making mistakes.

Catfish N. Cod said...

Believe it or not, I'm going out on a limb and saying Locum (Jane?) is half right. The Noble Savage trope is not, I believe, a constructive one -- it bears dangerously little relationship to reality and is simply an inversion of things we don't like about ourselves. It is self-deception.

But Locum is also wrong in thinking that obsession with 'otherness' is a weakness! A brilliant defense can be found in the Weber/Drake alt-history Belisarius series, which pits a North Indian Dynasty against Justinian-era Rome (right at the point we would start saying Byzantine Empire) as pawns in a battle between time-traveling factions over, among other things, the virtue of 'otherness'. The whole series bears it out, but there's a particular scene where a Roman ambassador explains how different their philosophy of identity is from purity-obsessed Hindus... that Romans wear Hunnish robes, ride like Persian calvary, sail like Carthaginians, and worship a god-man from Palestine... because they are willing to take whatever is useful, and discard anything they must, to survive and thrive.

Laurent has a point on Yoda's being 'beyond his time'. Even before the prequels spelled it out, I saw clear hints even in the original trilogy that Yoda really didn't know what to do about the Emperor, and that following his instructions slavishly would have led to failure (or worse, being turned). I don't think he is actually evil as Dr. Brin has humorously asserted, but he is a massive screwup... To be respected from the experience of age, but also to be grown beyond.

We shall see if J.J. has taken any of this analysis to heart, shall we not?

Smurphs said...

Re: locumranch said...

...In our version of 'Point/Counterpoint', feel free to call me Jane.

David, I believe the only correct response to this is:

"Jane, you ignorant slut." ;)

utopia27 said...

other chiding-but-attaboy...
- Stargate SG-1
- Babylon 5
Both of these had humanity in the junior-but-rising category (ethno-exceptionalism?). Both showed humanity in contrast with other races with different development paths. Both (esp. B5) highlighted humanity embracing and gaining strength from internal diversity - although neither smoothly nor uniformly.

He Rides the Worm said...

I thought the "How it Should Have Ended" for Avatar made a very good point with a fun bite of irony.

How it Should Have Ended: Avatar

David Brin said...

Laurent Weppe — Yoda refuses to teach Anekin, deeming him “dangerous,” but does assign the kid to the LEAST experienced Jedi master. Um… and the logic there is…? I agree with your assessment of Yoda as obsolete but clinging to power. What I don’t get is why so few note the massive harm that he does.

Catfish, I could accept that he’s just “obsolete” if not for the endless lying. And the way he pulls the old Jedi-death-fake-fade-away trick on Luke to evade inconvenient questions… and poor good-but-dim Luke falls for it!

And yes, Lucas was far, far better before “she left him.” The Young Indiana Jones series — filled with intellect and fun and curiosity and wisdom — was clearly made by a completely different person than this mess.

ElitistB said...

"One objection to the Na'vi being non native is the four-limbed
They are not four-limbed. They are 6 limbed with the upper part of the arms fused. And while there is a part in the entry where xenologists speculate that they might be a precursor to the Na'vi, this is also a movie where they can make Na'vi avatars without ever gene sequencing them and the prolemuris to make a more definitive statement.

Brian Bohmueller said...

Alien Mine I thought did a grand job at conveying strength through diversity and cooperation between alien and man, not as epic as Alien Nation, but transformative nonetheless

And i double the hope that that starfaring cetaceans get their moment in the limelight, though let it be adapted to a serial TV series, rather than pounded into the big screen squarish hole the likes of Ender's Game suffered. Character development in the end is the story!

Alex Tolley said...

@Brian - "Enemy Mine"?

Alex Tolley said...


They are not four-limbed. They are 6 limbed with the upper part of the arms fused.

You are right, this doesn't make sense as them being Na'vi ancestors. The bifurcation would have to be at the hand, not at the "elbow" to make them possible ancestors. Clearly they are 6 limbed.

The only remaing possibilities are:
1. that the Na'vi have vestigial limbs (like whales and snakes) hidden from the surface.

2. the Na'vi's upper limbs are fully fused pairs.

Where is that genomic data when you need it? :)

raito said...

Dr. Brin,

Lucas was better before he was successful enough that he didn't have to think.

Young Indiana Jones was made by a different person? Well, so were (both versions of) THX1138. And American Graffiti for that matter.

If we're going to discuss things like improving morality, Star Wars is an excellent place to start. Because of all that Joe Campbell nonsense, it's pointless for any average person to even attempt to fix the problem. You're not a hero, and can't affect anything.

(About the only monomyth stuff I can stand is Moorcock, and I'm not sure that wasn't satire.)

Star Wars would have been much much better if the theme was whether it is better to teach each individual to be their best (Jedi) or to take your best guy and make a million of him (clones). Though as it stands, it makes sense that the Jedi would side with the clones, because they may as well be peasants.

Treebeard said...

Right locum, it’s not exactly a new idea that celebration of the Other is a symptom of a civilization in decline, that has lost confidence in itself, become over-domesticated and is looking for revitalization from barbarians. Ibn Khaldun understood that a thousand years ago, and it’s a dynamic that looks to be playing out right now in Europe with respect to Islam. It’s one of the recurring problems of the rationalist phase of civilizations – rationalism leaves many people feeling “soul-starved” and looking for the next Prophet, Fuhrer or barbarian horde to come along and inspire them.

Dr. Brin, I was hoping for more than ad hominems to my serious questions. When someone speaks of a “necessary cultural phase”, it implies that they have some model or scheme they’re using to judge such matters. Marx and Qutb at least put out manifestos -- in the interest of transparency, I’m asking you to reveal your scheme, so we can decide it’s believable and desirable, or just another failed ideological fantasy.

Note that if the Star Trek Federation is your scheme, it has already failed – the Augments never showed up, the Nomad interstellar probe wasn’t launched, and humans haven’t been past low earth orbit since 1972. Maybe someone needs to create a new Star Trek timeline where the final frontier has closed, and instead we get a Federation that’s entirely earth-bound, all the best people dress in military uniforms, make Progress their religion, congratulate each other on the superiority of their enlightened liberal values and take marching orders from a monolithic global dictatorship – sounds like utopia to me! (This future actually sounds fairly plausible to me, now that I think about it)

Jumper said...

Theoretical study suggests huge lava tubes could exist on moon

Not "big." "Huge."

David Brin said...

Treebeard I'd leave off the ad hominems if you weren't deliberately nasty in over half of your snarks. Even so, your rationalizations never show the slightest inclination to learn or adapt to rebuttal. You are as reflexive as locum in concocting strawman rationalizations to hate a civilization that has subsidized you to wallow in unprecedented comfort while ignoring 6000 years of brutally awful history and indulgently dissing the only thing that ever came along to ameliorate that madness, offering a glimmer of a possible way-out.

EVERY standard by which you denounce enlightenment civilization is a standard that you suckled from the teat of that enlightenment civilization. And - forgive the adhominem - it is the sign of an inferior and reflexive mind that you cannot ever step back and LOOK at that irony. Or any of dozens of others.

Your snark-reflex is just too strong.

Laurent Weppe said...

"Yoda refuses to teach Anekin, deeming him “dangerous,” but does assign the kid to the LEAST experienced Jedi master. Um… and the logic there is…?"

Indeed, it's an illogical decision made by a de facto elder statesman realizing to his growing horror that his out of his depth and making enormous blunders because under his apparent calm demeanor he, like the rest of his peers, is utterly panicking as the Galactic Republic is breaking at the seams.

Besides, Anakin is too dangerous to be trained as an ascetic monk-warrior (enormous raw power at his fingertips, even by Jedi standards, and unlike most of his peer who are Republic Citizens and can grow up assured that their parents and loved one are living safely within a mostly functional polity, Anakin's fate is to be eaten from the inside by the not illogical fear that harm will come to his enslaved mother: that alone makes him unfit for the Yoda regimen), and Yoda realizes that, but still can't bring himself to veto his friend and colleague's dying wish, and if anything, tasking Obi-Wan, who's relatively close in age and with a somewhat similar personality to Anakin was the soundest decision: when Yoda tutored a young idealist, he ended up with Dooku, who remained enthralled to Palpatine till the very end: if anything, Ben Kenobi's tutoring proved in the end to be the better one.

David Brin said...

Sorry Laurent. I don't swallow it for an instant. Anekin's "fall" was utterly cartoonish. There were dozens of ways he might have been better trained... or protected from loony influences. Or settled down with a wife to curb him.

Jiminy! What set him off? The guilt over leaving his MOM as a slave on Tatooine where sand people murdered her. Couldn't Yoda have sent a very small bag of galactic coin to Tatooine, got mom sprung and set her up in a nice, safe house? Across TEN YEARS?

Yoda orders up a whole CLONE ARMY! He orders the Jedi into a suicide charge that kills most of them JUST as he takes delivery of his clone army. Are you freaking kidding me? No one notices the perfect timing of it all?

The fact that no one noticed is almost as appalling... no, it is vastly MORE appalling... than the inherently and hugely evil acts, themselves.

New posting ... continue there.


Alfred Differ said...

As someone raised on the awe I saw in the faces of the adults around me when we were last out past LEO, I’ll admit to bitter disappointment that we haven’t gone back. I put a lot of years into acquiring the credentials touted as necessary for flight on Shuttle, but the closer I got to completion, the more I could see the illusion spun for us by those who tried to keep agency programs alive on budgets that did not grow. When the illusion finally shattered, I realized we would have to do it ourselves. That explained away my post’72 pain. Apollo was a premature birth caused by a war that almost killed all of us. The baby had to be born before the mother died.

Treebeard’s disillusionment is familiar, but cynicism isn’t a necessary end-state. A number of us understand that we have to do these things ourselves. Some of David’s ‘good billionaires’ understand. They are all hard at work building the future I wanted so much, but they are doing it in a way that need not be sustained by a war. Cynicism clouds one’s eye sight, though. The hard work can easily be dismissed as ‘not enough’ or ‘mere repetition.’ While they aren’t building a Federation of Planets, they are working which is more than cynics ever do.

Brian Bohmueller said...

Iain Roberts said...

Coming in a bit late, but I strongly disagree with point (2) in the OP. Since the 1940s (Gandhi) and 1960s (King) there has been enormous moral progress, but it is not a simple trajectory towards improvement. Old-fashioned colonialism and apartheid are gone; mass surveillance and over-mighty corporations are in.

Any system run by human beings is vulnerable to the same old problems of greed, cowardice and stupidity. In 300 years our situation might be better, worse, or a mixture of both. Any improvement will be hard-won; it is not inevitable and will not occur on a predictable timetable. (Alex Tolley's point about the suffragettes is well taken.)

We excel at rationalizing how this time, things are different and we can ignore the lessons of the past. Iraq is unlike Vietnam, so we will be welcomed as liberators. Modern financial markets are unlike their predecessors, so it's fine to repeal laws designed to prevent speculative bubbles. Pandora is unlike all the other times we moved in to seize resources by force -- or so people would have argued, in the universe of Avatar.

This does not mean humans are "hopelessly rotten". It means, no matter how civilized and enlightened we think we have become, we must be vigilant against slipping into the darkness. So, I have no problem with depicting an oppressive future society as a cautionary tale.