The Science of Avatar (book, Stephen Baxter, 2012)

From SFX #222.


Author: Stephen Baxter

Publisher: Gollancz

Stephen Baxter on floating mountains

Science fiction authors the world over will be thanking Baxter for this handy tome on the SF of James Cameron’s Avatar. Not specific simply to the film, Baxter’s book covers everything a modern writer of speculative space adventures might need to tell a convincing tale: quantum entanglement, relativity, eco-apocalypse, time dilation, super conductors, military tech, blue shift, red shift… And all in handy, easy-to-digest chunks. Baxter did it, so you didn’t have to type the words into Wikipedia. This is a dense wallop of edification for your research shelf.

The book does tackle those specific parts of Avatar which are not common to SF in general. Particularly engrossing is the exhaustive exploration of Cameron’s fictionalised Alpha Centauri system, from planetary formation right the way down to the way Pandora’s complicated magnetic fields affect its life and weather. It’s here that Baxter becomes coy. Granted full access to cast and crew, he never outright says “well, this is obviously nonsense”, even about flying mountains, although he does drop hints.

For Avatar fans, there is plenty of detail mined from Cameron’s backstory and universe, much of it unseen on screen. Avatar, flaws aside, is more rather than less rooted in actual science; this book reveals just how deeply.

Less engaging is Baxter’s non-fiction style. He’s a tremendous talent when writing stories, Baxter, and to his credit he conveys complicated concepts clearly here, but he lacks journalistic flair, and that just occasionally makes the book stilted.

Did you know?

“Unobtainium” was a term coined by the US military as a catch-all to describe elements to possible tech that were so perfect they could not exist.


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