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The Science Of Avatar by Stephen Baxter

01/06/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Science Of Avatar in the USA - or Buy The Science Of Avatar in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 273 page illustrated hardback. Price: 18.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-13095-1.

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In many respects, 'The Science Of Avatar' by Stephen Baxter gives you more of a grounding in the current knowledge of science and technology than that of the reality and future as designed by director James Cameron for his 2007 Science Fiction film 'Avatar'. If anything, the film is used as a step-off point to show where we are with things than exploring the world of Pandora. That isn't itself a problem, unless the real reason you're out to buy this book is for looking for more material about the film.

It's over seventy pages before Baxter starts discussing the real nature of 'Avatar' and looks at the planet of Pandora. Up until this time, there are comparisons to space flight today and the difference it would take to get from Earth to Alpha Centauri. Oddly, Baxter does not explain how much distance the starships have to travel to decelerate from near light speed. Contrary to most SF films, no spacecraft can stop on a sixpence without killing the occupants. Just think the equivalent of what happens when a car stops suddenly from sixty miles an hour and multiply by a million. Considering that the twelve spacecraft are in continuous transit between the two star systems, you would think that any communication would be amplified and boosted off each one to keep the message signal strength up, even if that couldn't go any faster. Although Baxter explains the limits of the speed of light and relativity, even a six year flight time at near light speeds, he doesn't say how much relative time would pass on Pandora in the meantime, let alone the length of time decelerating. When I reviewed the film, I put this at about fifteen years and I was being optimistic. That's a long time to wait for solutions for the humans on Pandora to just hang about waiting to do anything other than twiddle their thumbs.

The description of Pandora's atmosphere being heavy on carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, despite the amount of vegetation there, which would make it also rather smelly. This doesn't necessarily mean that the atmosphere would necessarily turn oxygen but Baxter neglects to discuss things like the carbon cycle or even the nitrogen cycle that recycles various gaseous products in his diatribes on real science and these are after all, real science problems that needed to be taken into account on the examination of any planet's ecology. Baxter points out that the concentration of carbon dioxide is 19% yet neglects what makes up the rest of Pandora's atmosphere, which I presume includes free oxygen.

The Pandorapedia website,, cites Pandora's atmosphere has a high percentage of nitrogen which would be good for some types of plants but less helpful for the animal kingdom.

Baxter's concern over the Na-vi having only four limbs compared to the majority of animals there having six doesn't really answer the problem as to what happened to their missing limbs. He speculates that if they weren't used, then they'd lose them but even the likes of snakes have residue bones of their former limbs. For those extra arm, the Na-vi would also have a lot of other bones to lose, like scapula or their equivalents, and their skinny enough to show they don't exist.

Likewise, although Baxter points out that the Na-vi's blue skin and yellow spots are both a means of camouflage and a means to be spotted in the various levels of sunlight on Pandora, he can't account for why, as they also have red blood, why this doesn't tinge their skin accordingly. Are the Na-vi that thick-skinned?

There is some discussion about the avatar body clones themselves. As it is an on-going technological development on Earth, you would have thought by their time period, that it's use and expense would have been reduced in cost to have provided the means to have restored Jack Sully's body, even under military expense, than leave him wheelchair bound. Granted Jim Cameron wanted a rather more immobile hero who would benefit from a new choice of body but it was something he somewhat glossed over.

If anything, considering how pivotal creating these hybrid bodies are, it's a puzzle why Baxter didn't examine the development process of creating them in more detail than he does. Although we haven't created human clones yet and still rather hit and miss with the clones created so far, we aren't that far removed from making this aspect of the film possible. Quite what was used to make the hybrid Na-vi/human work sufficiently to allow brain linkage isn't revealed and Baxter doesn't really speculate on how possible this is.

I should point out that there is an eight page insert of colour photographs from the film in case you want something to remind you of the film.

There's certainly enough material in this book for you to digest and contemplate, but it doesn't necessarily needed to have 'Avatar' as window dressing to examine much of the information that is given here. This doesn't mean it isn't an interesting read, but if you're scientifically apt, then you'll probably know much of the material gathered as well, hence my more critical observations. If you aren't, then you should come away with more knowledge than when you started reading this book.

GF Willmetts

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This book has 70 votes in the sci-fi charts

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