In Defense of James Cameron

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Steve Sailer loved Terminator and Aliens, and he’s a bit of a contrarian, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he wrote a piece in defense of James Cameron — but calling Cameron a worthy successor to the greatest American science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) strikes me as going a bit too far:

Heinlein’s thumbprints can be found all over Avatar’s pastiche of a plot. For instance, the device that launches Cameron’s scenario — one identical twin must substitute at the last minute for his brother on an interstellar voyage — is also in Heinlein’s 1956 novel Time for the Stars. Moreover, Avatar appears to borrow one of its central ideas — Pandora, a planet where the entire ecosystem is a single living network exchanging information — from the climax of Heinlein’s 1953 book for boys, Starman Jones.

Indeed, Avatar’s main plot — a human soldier teams up with a seemingly primitive but actually wise alien tribe to prevent an evil Earthling mining company from despoiling their sacred tropical homeland — an be found in Heinlein’s 1948 “young adult” story Space Cadet.

This is not to say Cameron is plagiarizing Heinlein. Rather, Heinlein’s ideas are part of the creative DNA of every artist working in hard sci-fi.

Further, Cameron is confronted with the same storytelling problem as Heinlein: they both love giant machines, but audiences don’t want to see the overdog win. Heinlein used a more convoluted variant of the Avatar plot in both Red Planet (1949) and Between Planets (1951). In these, the heroes are human settlers on Mars or Venus who enlist the admirable indigenous aliens in their fight for planetary independence from the oligarchic rulers of Earth.

In Heinlein’s books, it’s as if the American Revolution saw the American settlers allying with the American Indians to defeat King George. (The reality, of course, was closer to the opposite. As the Declaration of Independence’s reference to “merciless Indian Savages” suggests, “democracy” and “indigenous rights” are more antonyms than synonyms.) Not surprisingly, Cameron, who was born and raised through age 16 in Canada, can’t be bothered with Heinlein’s contortions, so Avatar is politically simpler than its sources in the Heinlein canon.

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