The Na'vi Must Declare An Orbital No-Fly Zone Around Pandora. They Will Need Humans
On bioweapons and planetary defense policy
So I saw the new Avatar sequel, Way of Water, this weekend. It is not bad at all, in fact it quite exceeded my expectations without quite fulfilling any of my fears about drowning in The Message™.
James Cameron has followed up his first film, an intersectional narrative (Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves meets Kurt Russell’s Soldier) with a new hybrid. Or hybrids. This film is definitely about hybridity, the line between human and alien being biological rather than spiritual, apparently.
Call it an emergent theme.
In this second installment, Cameron has told a whaling parable (Moby Dick), inside of a Jacques Cousteau special, inside of the 22-year old Sid Meier video game Alpha Centauri.
Jake Sully is the white whale to Col. Quaritch’s Ahab. Cameron is the Cousteau. Kiri, the mysterious hybrid child of Sigourney Weaver who seems to have powers of telepathic control over the life forms of Pandora, is the Voice of Planet from the game.
This is not to say Cameron is being derivative. All stories have sources, even the most original-seeming. Clearly, he spent a long time thinking his world into existence. The basic premise of his magnum opus is that Pandora must resist an infestation of earthlings, for they are killing their own planet, and covet what they find on Pandora.
About 90 seconds into this film, Cameron brings the humans back to Pandora. It is a credit to Cameron that he shows us the story of Sully’s hybrid family in that short introductory montage, and a further credit that the characters he wants us to love face real danger, including death, during the film. No spoilers, but the reader is warned in advance that Cameron has not forgotten that film plots need conflict, including mortal danger.
Let us focus here on the danger to Pandora, because that moment in the first reel when Sully looks into the night sky and sees earth ships decelerating on their approach to his adopted world is the lost opportunity from which all the bad stuff follows. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, humans say, and so the Na’vi are missing out on the best possible opportunity to defeat earth invasion before the first jackbooted avatar foot touches down.
They need an orbital defense policy.
Cameron would not be the first science fiction film director to come up with clever ways for alien life to adapt itself as weaponry. Arguably, the creature in The Thing is an alien bioweapon, while the eponymous aliens of Weaver’s first big franchise have turned out to also be life forms existing solely to kill and consume humanity.
But these are horror films, and Cameron is doing epic adventures. He has already shown us that the planet offers a million ways for humans to die and an equal number of ways that the Na’vi can defend themselves using the very life of the planet that humans wish to despoil. An effective orbital shield must therefore expend some form of ammunition to intercept the humans during deceleration.
Many readers will already visualize what I am writing about. Starship Troops is as deeply flawed as its director, Paul Verhoeven, but his “plasma bug” visuals capture the basic idea of how ground-based planetary defenses might work.
If history is any guide, earth will not relent. Quaritch is now a digital file that can be updated and improved, then plugged into thousands of avatars at a time. Earth can send whole legions of Quaritches now, if they want. Defense against this threat must begin with orbital attrition. Otherwise, humans will simply scale up their solutions until they win.
However, industrialization is not in the cards for the Na’vi. Despite large resources of unobtanium that could be used in some sort of sustainable fashion, Eywa the Great Mother, animating quasi-goddess of the planet’s neural network, has not seen fit to deploy potential fossil fuel resources in the planet’s defense, at least not yet.
We might say that this would not occur to such an entity, or to the Na’vi, but resources still matter. That is, if the planetary consciousness of Pandora set out to design and evolve a plasma bug, it would have to eat something; for the plasma bug to shit hot plasma into the sky like that, its food would need to be something unusual.
Maybe unobtanium will fit the bill. Who knows.
Still, there is the problem of scale. The sky is a big place, and the gravitational mechanics of Pandora’s orbit around a gas giant will always create blind spots for direct observation. While a self-aware planet might sense incoming humans, tracking an inbound trajectory, and guiding weapons to destroy the target, are activities that humans mastered two centuries before Cameron’s timeline.
This is where the humans are useful, because Pandora will need their expertise to see incoming earth ships and destroy them in orbit with aimed fire. Splattter effects are sub-optimal in the vastness of orbital vacuum. Unaimed volleys of burning bug poop would be a waste of strategic resources, even a potential hazard for Pandora’s residents.
Planet and human would have to combine their efforts to make this work. We might imagine, for example, a plasma bug-type creature shooting a human-made satellite network into orbit, with the planet’s defenders interfacing neural and digital networks in some way to aim the plasma bug fire with the satellites.
The humans who stayed behind in the first movie will have the requisite knowledge to build a satellite, but they probably lack a rocket production plant. In the defense procurement biz, this potential combination of efforts is called complementarity.
Planetary defense requires a revolution in Pandoran thinking.
Na’vi will have to consider space as a frontier, one in which humans have already developed a culture of survival, and will have things to teach the Na’vi rather than the other way around. Cameron may have to invert his storytelling paradigm here: in space, the humans are the natives right now, while the residents of Pandora are the noobs. No doubt he can handle the training montages.
Nor are spaceships necessarily beyond Pandoran possibility. Science fiction is replete with living, organic ships navigating space, Farscape and Babylon 5 being just two examples that spring to mind. Should Cameron want to take his story into orbit, he can do so, and he can put Na’vi in space suits if he wants. And if there is ever to be peace with earth, he will have to do that. Pandora needs options below the lethal threshold, including the ability to board and search inbound vessels and teach humans respect for their sovereignty.
Actually, the Na’vi and their planet will need to learn about concepts like “sovereignty” right quick, and also “escalation ladder,” because they are dealing with a species that already has these concepts, which are absent in Pandoran thinking. While Kiri can perhaps serve as the armaments maker for Pandora, Eywa desperately needs an understanding of human violence as an historical political phenomenon — and a way to communicate the intentions of Pandora’s defenders to earth.
In the long run, hybrid bodies will be less important than hybrid ideas.
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