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Avatar unmasked – or, the race that knew it was superior

When it comes to constructing a good story, as we have noted in previous articles on speculative fiction (as SF is now known), the entertainment industry is only too ready to wash out all the shades of grey in favour of straight black and white. The good guys wear shining white hats and the bad ones dress in black or have vile deformities, like Darth Vader and Richard III in that order.

The film Avatar, set on the distant Pandora, is no exception. But by using the tool of historical analogy we can scrape away the glossy veneer of the finished product to restore many of the rightful shades of grey. As always, our quest for historical truth in SF has surprising results.

The 2009 film Avatar, a massive commercial success, featured an organisation called The Resources Development Administration mining a mineral identified only as unobtainium on Pandora, a habitable moon of the gas giant Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri system. The inhabitants of Pandora, three metre (10 foot) tall, blue-skinned hominids called the Na’vi, worship nature, and the particular tribe which features in the story live in a gigantic tree, called Hometree.

So here we have our black and white. The evil RDA which, despite the name, appears to be a corporation of some kind, and the noble savages who just want to commune with nature, of which there is a lot on Pandora. The whole moon is one, big rain forest inhabited by mega fauna. These are not quite dinosaur size but very big, robust and not to be messed with. As for the Na’vi, their lifestyle bears more than a passing resemblance to the American Indian way of life, except that there is an aerial component – the hominids ride around on bird-things as well as on horse-things. A crucial difference is apparent equality of the sexes, which is certainly not evident in most of earth’s noble native races, but makes the Na’vi more acceptable (read saintly) to modern audiences. Another, major difference to the hunter gathers of earth is that the indigenous Pandorians don’t seem to move around very much, sticking close to their big tree which is a base-city.

So the Na’vi are not really hunter gatherers but then they are not really a civilisation with writing, roads and organised cultivation, although they do have a town of a sort and a social organisation a step or so up from tribal. The definition of civilisation is tricky but from what is shown in the film the Na’vi might be classified as a proto-civilisation, with the distinct advantage that the Pandorian eco-system is so active that that they do not have to move around to get the food they need through hunting.

One possible analogy from earth’s history is that of the Zulus who herded cattle and lived in Kraals (compounds of huts and cattle pens) in Southern Africa. Under their great king Shaka (early 19th century) and his descendents the Zulus made for uneasy neighbours. Sure they were (and are) a great people, and were eventually attacked by the British for no other reason than they were a latent threat. However, the Zulus were also heavily militarised and much of what they did revolved around fighting with other tribes. An interesting point about the military organisation brought to the Zulus by Shaka is that some of it might well have been a response to Arab slave trading raids in the North. However, it is absurd to pretend that indigenous tribes do not battle each other, or that the “civilised” races have a monopoly on violence. All this means is that the Na’vi were and are a violent race.

The most curious part of the whole story, however, is that the Na’vi are simply not interested in earth people or their technology. They are not interested in alcohol, television and video games, in better saddles for the their horse-things or in how the stubby creatures who wear cloth in hot rain forests got to their moon.  The humans on Pandora, or so it would seem from the film, had so much trouble making the Na’vi pay any attention to them that they had to grow bio-engineered versions of the gigantic Pandorian bodies then train humans to remote control them while in a trance, as if they were in the bodies, just so they could have some way of interacting with the creatures. You would think that the Na’vi at least would be interested in this trick of making walking, talking copies of themselves, but in the film they seem to just accept it as barbarian witchcraft.

In contrast, the scientists attached to the RDA want to study the Na’vi and learn about the gigantic eco-system which has some sort of mystical life of its own, or so it is alleged. When scientists Dr Grace Augustine is taken to a mystical grove which is a centre for the eco-energy, despite being near death her first thought is to take samples. That is the scientific spirit which helped create the technologies that got humans to Pandora. Although the Na’vi tolerate a school set up by Dr Augustine for a time, they are otherwise uninterested in change, uninterested in learning and, crucially, uninterested in discussing mining rights with off-planet scum

The Na’vi’s lack of interest in their interstellar visitors has very few parallels in human history. Shaka was uninterested in European technology, but he did not actively try to shut out all such technology and pretend that the Zulus had nothing at all to learn from the European. Instead, the Na’vi’s extreme attitude bears some similarities with that of the Imperial Chinese to western visitors. For centuries after Western traders started arriving in China, the Chinese knew just how they stood in relation to the West. They (the Chinese) were superior and that was that. The Western monarchs and American president had to be properly subservient in their dealings with his celestial majesty, just as the rulers of Japan and Korea and various parts of  Indo-china were properly subservient, or not bother with diplomatic relations at all.

If that meant the foreigners went away, that would have been fine by the Chinese. They had fancies for the occasional technological detail, such as clocks, but never bothered to put them to systematic use such as putting up town hall clocks, or installing them in factories. The Chinese Civilisation was not set up to change – that was not what it did – or to take account of any other civilisation but its own. The complete lack of interest by the Chinese in European trade goods eventually led to the Opium wars, which were about the European powers pushing the opium trade on the Chinese, so that they would have the money to pay for the tea and silk they were taking out of China. (The opium was grown in India, and shipped to China.)

Those wars were the fault of the European powers, of course, and to their eternal shame. Modern Chinese attitudes to the west are completely different, but that is beyond the scope of this article. For now we can note that civilisation has moved on and companies cannot start wars or massacre native peoples, even if they are on other planets. Considering that directors now routinely face criminal prosecution over workplace accidents, if it is apparent that the workplace was unsafe, the scene in the film where a company official authorises an attack on a native village/tree, after assurance that indigenous casualties would be “minimal” or acceptable, can be dismissed as pure propaganda. They would not have dared.

The stockholders would not care very much but everyone else would, including a host of do-gooding, non-government organisations, and government officials hoping to make a name for themselves. Audience-hungry media would be close behind. If any indigenous person happened to be injured in any way by a human, the incident would promptly be labelled a “massacre” by that media. News teams by the score would appear on Pandora, somehow, hoping to interview the Na’vi about the terror they felt when the evil mining people attacked, and so on. So far from resulting in “acceptable” casualties, any attack on any indigenous people would quickly turn into a public relations nightmare far greater than, say, the cyanide being used to treat ore accidentally spilling into the local river system. The company directors and officials – in fact, anyone remotely connected with the “attack” – would be lucky to get away with just war crime indictments, almost irrespective of what happened in the attack if, indeed, there was an actual attack.

So we can dump the part about the humans attacking the Na’vi as an invention of a bunch of tree-hugging hippies, just as we can dismiss as propaganda the scene in which the evil military knock over the dwelling tree. Once those are out of the way we can construct a scenario that is likely to somewhere near the truth, starting at much the same point as that of the film, the Na’vi’s lack of interest in the humans extending to a distain for mineral rights, but with a slightly different take. Assuming that the humans could get the Na’vi to speak about mineral rights at all, the conversation might have gone something like this.

Human: “So can we go here?”

Na’vi: “No, it’s a sacred site.”

Human: “ Well where are the sacred sites? Okay, this bit isn’t marked as sacred, can we mine here?”

Na’vi: “No, that’s sacred too.”

Human: “But it’s in the middle of a swap and previously marked by you to be taboo?”

Na’vi: “It’s a sacred, taboo swamp.”

Human: “You can gain many benefits by permitted us to mine.”

Na’vi: “What benefits could scum like you give us? We need nothing from you.”

Human: “A third of your children die before their first birthday. We can fix that.”

Na’vi: “We have no further time for short creatures. Go away.”

And so on.

In the middle of all this exhausting negotiation with these creatures, the humans probably made the mistake of not following all the necessary abasement rituals. An emissary presenting himself to the Chinese emperor, for example, would be required to crouch down and knock his  head repeatedly on the floor – a ritual called kowtowing. In fact, lesser people were supposed to kowtow to anything that came from the emperor. When British emissary Lord Macartney visited the Chinese Emperor in 1792, there was enormous trouble because he refused to follow that ritual when being presented to the emperor. He agreed to go on one knee to the emperor and eventually got his audience, little good that it did him.

Back on Pandora and having made this mistake in etiquette, whatever it was, the negotiating team might well have been required to sacrifice three of themselves, to avoid giving offence. No, not the puppet things, the humans were told, as they were almost worth something. Instead three of the human creatures had to present themselves tomorrow for a particularly grizzly, Aztec-style sacrifice to a horrific  nature god, otherwise the Na’vi would come and get them.

This put the humans in a major bind. The Na’vi would attack if their demands were not met, and any resistance meant killing them. As far as the media were concerned that was the same as if the organisation had deliberately attacked a village. This is the origin of the myth of the Na’vi’s supposed toughness and warrior skills. The humans did not dare kill or even touch them without a very good reason, which had been discussed extensively with the ethics committee. Pandora had an ethics committee, as such committees were everywhere, not to mention some sort of government oversight. The film depicts the RDA as in control but that assertion can be dismissed as more propaganda. There would have been government oversight and comprehensive framework of ethical rules, not to mention environmental impact statements, social impact statements, detailed agreements on interaction with the indigenous people, and an agreement on what law would apply to this moon. The default contract law where this is no legal system to speak of, for example, is that of the state of New York, as that’s where the United Nations is based.  Any military forces on Pandora would have bound by strict rules, including strict rules of engagement which basically forbade them from doing anything.

So the actual sequence of events was that the Na’vi attacked and the ethics committee refused to let the human soldiers respond in any way. Think this is farfetched? Something like this has been known to happen on UN deployments, where soldiers have not been permitted to defend themselves, although they are not killed, just disarmed and the arms taken by the attackers.

In this instance, once the massacre started, enough soldiers disobeyed the ethics committee to beat off the Na’vi. Those soldiers are the real heroes of the piece as it takes considerable courage to defy an ethics committee. The film shows the humans as being allowed to leave but there was never any question of a truce. The Na’vi would have regarded any dealings at all with the humans who had defied them in such a manner, as beneath them. Instead, once the humans started shooting back and beat them off, the Pandorians probably simply went away. As the Na’vi knew they were superior, they could not possibly have lost the fight. The Na’vi who died must have died for other reasons.

As there was no question of the humans remaining on Pandora after that, they got in their star ships and left – thereby confirming the Na’vi view that they won the fight – and the RDA wrote off a huge loss on the operation, eventually becoming insolvent. A few years later, thanks to advances in technology, factories on earth started making synthetic unobtainium, whatever it is, superior to anything found on Pandora. The mining companies had no reason to return to the moon.

Although it is not clear as to whether the Na’vi got their sacrifice victims,  they did get lots of apologists. An NGO team turned up on Pandora a few years after the fight at the base camp and, by abasing themselves suitably managed to get an audience with a Na’vi designated to deal with the pale creatures. The Imperial Chinese government had an official whose title was official for soothing the foreign barbarians. Among other duties, that official had to keep the foreigners away from the Imperial court, and inside the designed areas. The corresponding minor Na’vi official, appointed after the humans had left as part of the Na’vi process for forgetting all about the humans, kept the team members away from other members of his tribe and anywhere else of importance in the story and dictated the Na’vi version of events. No questions were permitted. Not only did the NGO team accept that version of events, they made no attempt to check the story against RDA logs and documentation, view existing videos of the incident, or interview the human survivors of the attack on the organisation’s camp.

The NGO version of events was then repeated in sociological text books without question with academics brushing aside any attempt by those who were at the base camp fight to correct the record, pointing out that the soldiers were not academics and therefore had no standing to debate the matter academically. The apologist version is the one that appears in the film

What of Jake, the crippled human who became the avatar of one of these creatures, fell in love with a female Na’vi and then took the Na’vi side against the humans? Most of this part story, along with the evil colonel, was almost certainly invented by the film makers to make the story more palatable for cinema going audiences. The avatar technology suggests this story line.

The Na’vi are not evil, just arrogant, nasty and completely uninterested in anything that is not Na’vi. As there is nothing now to break the tribe out of its cultural straight jacket, it will remain that way for a long time to come. Apart from maintaining an official for dealing with star people, if and when any more turn up, they have forgotten all about the human attempts to civilise them. The investors in RDA also wish that they could forget about the matter, but they still wake up screaming.