Prolific science fiction author Stephen Baxter invites us to explore with him both real life science and space fiction in The Science of Avatar. There are lots of details sprawling in every direction, from speculation to established facts, in an almost scene-by-scene recount of the entire movie. He posits what our real world might be like in the year 2154, the year Avatar takes place.
We begin with Jake Sully leaving an ecologically devastated Earth, which we get the barest glimpse of in the film. Baxter explains to us what might have happened in an all too real account of ecocide, wherein Earth’s resources are depleted and space exploration offers the only hope of finding the resources we need to stay alive here. In the movie, this is the reason for the journey to Pandora.
The rich, life sustaining resource being mined from Pandora is called “unobtainium” which, of course, doesn’t actually exist in real life, but is the substance cited in way too many sci-fi stories to name here as The One Thing we will need to live on Earth someday.
Baxter then explores what we might find in outer space. In great detail, we learn all about Alpha Centauri, asteroids, planets, moons and the stuff of life they may hold, such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Of course, we also have to build a better spaceship in order to get where we need to go. In Avatar, Jake Sully and crew fly to Pandora on a “true space plane” – the Transatmospheric Vehicle Valkyrie and not the the same old throw away rocket system we currently use to get us to the moon and back.
Baxter does all the hard calculating to figure out just how far away from Earth Pandora is and in great detail he goes on to describe what we’d need to build in order to reach that far into outer space. By now, I’m sure you get the point and yet I’ve only described the first three parts out of eight in the entire book. Unsurprisingly, Baxter holds degrees in both mathematics and engineering.
The bottom line on The Science of Avatar is this: if you’re a true space nut and a hard science fiction buff, you’re going to love this book so hard, you’ll read it a thousand times. But if, like me, you just like to see the stuff of dreams up on the screen and end your space exploration right there, you may have a hard time digesting all the dry facts that Baxter throws at you like the high school science teacher he could be if he weren’t so busy writing 50 or so captivating books and countless short stories without ever making us want to cut class.