Certainly the first known interplanetary tale was The True History by Lucian of Samosata written about 175 A.D. Lucian's hero went to the moon, where he found intelligent, nonhuman beings.
What might be called science fiction began in 1634 with Somnium by Johannes Kepler. Kepler was a great pioneer astronomer, who first established the mathematical principles to explain the orbits of the planets. But he was also an astrologer and mystic. As the title indicates, the story takes place in a dream, where a spirit carries Kepler to the moon and the planets.
Lester Del Rey The World of Science Fiction 1978
Past the intro: a spirited mash-up of Lensman and Star Wars. Some great physics.
Birch, which may have supplied the first portable written surface for Indo-European languages, has also been sometimes identified as the Rg Veda's 'tree of life.' Indo-European's first recorded myth, the Rg Veda, is a rich source mined for valuable references to the origins of written language. Both Russian and Hindi histories used birch until relatively recently (14th century).
This is an interesting tumblr begun 2011 to showcase Lucas's mirroring/doubling (thanks John Fell Ryan for spotting). While they begin with a series of Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai and Searchers's parallels, the tumblr shifts later to internal dialogue doubling, isomorphs and object-oriented scale-mirrors.
Here are two pieces from our archives about what this all might mean.
Winogrand is one of the few masters of his genre, street photography. His method was relentless, at his death some 6000 rolls had yet to be developed and tens of thousands of negatives remained untouched. Like another master Lewis Hine, entire off-camera narratives can be derived from Winogrand's pictures, and they go hand in hand with the age of movies, exposing unseen sides of human desire. With so many negatives left unscanned, a veritable secret history of the 20th century awaits archivists in the Winogrand collection. The N.Y. Times chose his tour of the 1960 Democratic Convention to showcase.
Widely known to have beat the west into space, the Soviets could also claim another first: movies. Though buried from view during the cold-war, the first feature film on Earth about space travel is the U.S.S.R.'s Aelita: Queen of Mars. Filled with tools invented by Griffith, Aelita cross-cuts between planetary infidelity and socio-political contrasts. Clever touches are legion. A shimmering capitalist Martian city is reigned over by Aelita and ruled by elders who demand the refrigeration of one-third of their workers (they tell her: "you reign but we rule"). This Mars is a constructivist fantasy version of the west, its sets and costumes are an astounding series of vortexes and skeletal extensions. There's no doubt Aelita influenced Lang's Metropolis. Back home in a newly formed U.S.S.R., a scientist plans his trip to space with blueprints of a pod-shaped vessel. The film opens with a mysterious three word message heard round-the-world, and our communist hero plots his escape velocity. To hold court in the revolutionary atmosphere of Moscow, the film intercuts fidelity problems, secret balls of oligarchs in hiding, returning soldiers from the revolution and a police procedeural sub-plot to ensnare first an abuser of rationed sugar, then the murder of the heroine. Both ahead of its time and behind, weakened by needless but fascinating propaganda. Rarely projected, part of the Berlin Film Festival 2012 and MoMA's series built around the Soviet's first film studio: Mezhrabpom. A must-see for any student of sci-fi. Last showing is Friday April 20th at 7pm. Museum admission and films are free Fridays after 5.
It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the same manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past.
- George Steiner, In Bluebeard's Castle (1971)
Today Titanic returns from the deep to take more passengers onboard, yet the more timely Avatar is the myth that needs sifting through. Unlike Titanic, Avatar is hiding from its past.
Not to be misunderstood, our generation's Walt Disney via Werner von Braun, James Cameron, carefully combs his five previous sci-fi arcs through the lenses of both The Matrix and the cgi Star Wars Trilogy. He comes up with a blatant utopian-eden fantasy named Avatar. More or less a retake of The Abyss's central themes about ecology and technology, Avatar is staged a few light years away in our galaxy (updated from Abyss's salt-water to non-breathable air for humans, a step-up on the movement ladder, but he keeps that bioluminescence vibrating anyway) on a planet not subtly named Pandora (a prophecy from Earth's mythos).
The most expensive film ever made is about an invasion of little green-obsessed men (humans). They've colonized a green planet populated by blue-giants, the star-affixed Nav'i, who remain somewhat tethered to their planet and its creatures in a manner not unlike a bio-analog version of The Matrix's pulsing digital simulation (plugging into its moon-wide broadcast signal). If you're blue, wrap your hair around a local plant and suddenly: who knows what might be under your tannenbaum. Cameron takes his best actor and has her undersell the miracle of Pandora to her superiors (hint: reweave Earth like this and you can save it and make the bucks). Sigourney Weaver's throwaway key monologue (a scene repeat from the much better Aliens) would have us comprehend the revolutionary aspects of Pandora's biome at the expense of the deaf ears of the military-industrial complex that's paying for the project. They're both protector and enemy, a metaphor for the studio that footed the film's bill. They're aiming for the exact same thing the planet achieves by plant life digging roots and linking botanic and geologic forms, except these business types are using wiring and encryption and credit card access. People still gotta pay for it, yet Pandora the planet is an open source biological wi-fi network waiting for a genetic revolution of information. Is this open source's first massive metaphor? Cameron is so obsessed with the tech-aspects of his film, he shorts our comprehension of his biggest star, the sphere the film is set on. A somewhat 'thinking' (somewhat conscious like its resident bipeds, the Nav'i) living planet operates in unity, unlike our own Earthly disconnected networks of animal, plant and geosphere. Disney's Pandora, is a clearer name for this film (and it almost was), whose technological revolutions bypass Pixar, Lucas and Jackson by the second reel. The Na'vi are as somewhat monotonous as the troopers that inhabit Pandora's opposite, the Death Star. The Na'vi, does it read as na'ive? They never use the tree-network to phone for help; never once try to ride 'the last shadow' themselves, whose riding is the sort of legend equated with the discovery of 'The One" in The Matrix. They remain at a consciousness mezzanine within their planet's potential and Cameron suggests their game-changer (the awakener Sully) must be a specifically disabled outsider, with few preconceived notions of their world. The key to Sully is his lack of legs which gives him an unconscious weightlessness neither the other avatars nor the Na'vi can experience flight through. Cameron shows you his atrophied legs as a taunt, like an afterschool special hero's, they look pathetic, yet they render his Na'vi unique in many unmentioned ways.
Earth by this time, 2154, is a dead planet (the film's first shot, travelling over rainforest, could be a memory of Earth). And humans, thinkers from the dead-planet, bring the usual suspect archetypes, a working class-hero - Sully, a tough as nails scientist (Grace Augustine, an unsubtle reference to the Christian thinker who wrote the autobiographical The Confessions, about a pleasure seeking sinner redeemed), a colonel with self-esteem issues. Cameron wisely glosses over the usual set-up conflicts and goes right for the meat of the journey: whether or not these humans belong on Pandora's Eden. Like most films about the future it's actually about our past. His film is telling us, our way to eden is by reverse thinking to a near past, the moment we began our colonization and rape of the Americas/Africa/Asia; humans must become what they once were, isolated in pockets, and change the outcome. He even slyly hints that we can reverse our invention as a reinvention. His symbolic visuals are still operant, sometimes even vibrant. Pandora is first seen as a metaphor for us in an earth-made mirror, a vast field of solar panels, an earth-like gem framed by a blue-hued Jupiter copy. The creatures that signify promise are Abyss's spindly bi-valves (and they suggest the air in Pandora also has properties of water). The beds one accesses an Avatar through are green hued - a shout out to The Matrix, and the list goes on. The compression is impressive, Sully's got his Military father-figure (Quaritch's speech to the troops is framed by a window that apes the USA's flag - only now in green, a dead twin (never seen), a Scientist Mother figure (that runs slightly Oedipal once she inhabits her Avatar), a harried corporate golf-pro (again, all humans), a rebellious sister-type played by Michelle Rodriguez (she slips out of the tree assault early like a spoiled child). Then there's the locals, an entire array of Nav'i - natives developed around a cauterized First Mother First Father First Daughter and the first heir. Cameron rejects complexity here, there is no threatening Uncle, the son-heir, though contentious, is easily impressed. The real question is, why is he using Earth mythology to show-off an altogether different planetary consciousness - is he unconsciously lampooning it? amping it for the contrasts? is he making fun of his own projection? Their slim biometric customs and animal life that compete with the human tale for screentime are the secret stars of the film along with the orb itself: Pandora. Cameron even blends the bioforms through a bilateral-symmetry that's more ordered than Earth's (connected like Lucas whose influence here is felt, except Cameron is linking the life forms AND the spaceships, slightly different than what Lucas does). Pandora's Nav'i have flattened noses that appear in other lifeforms. Watch the flying creature's quick glance into the camera, it looks just like a Na'vi, a subtle mirror in staring. The unspoken visual elements are sometimes, enragingly brilliant: the bioluminescent 'stars' the Nav'i facially possess suggest, wildly, that the 'planet' (and the spirit of the planet Eyva) sees these stars and then projects them genetically (through time via nature, through genetic patterns that emerge through mating-sequencing across eons) into the individual Na'vi patterns. The planet is, however distant as a controlling force, still connected to these creatures, and weirdly, the Nav'i's consciousness disconnects them from the total system's possibilities- sound familiar? Even though the Na'vi express fear, doubt even rage against the encroaching aliens, their planet doesn't get the message. As chunky as the material is and as blatantly copied as the third act accomplishments are, his real feat is haunting the planet with a feasible antidote to the false simplicities of eco sci-fi.
Cameron is best when he makes the process of discovery seem intuitive with deadly force. Jake Sully's avatar Nav'i is told not to look his romantic interest's flying creature in the eyes. Later, as he approaches a herd of them to claim one for himself, he asks her how he will know which one to choose from. She tells him only then the proper choice will try to kill him first. Later on however the brutality of the Nav'i seems to run counterintuitive to the sacred treatment that counterintel agent-Sully's Nav'i avatar receives, when the humans start ripping the Nav'i's forest to shreds (a direct reference to Phantom Menace), they banter about whether Jake is to be trusted. Cameron slides from brutalism to chicanery when the audience requires it. Similar logic-holes surround the half-completed premise of the sleep-wake cycle built into the Avatar program, and Cameron aims for laughs rather than complexly address what is a crucial, serialized disconnect: the inert Avatar host body 'sleeps' while his human inhabitor is awake. Imagine what Cameron could have done with a Sully coitus interuptus scene between his Nav'i female and Grace Augustine (Weaver) trying to 'wake' him. Another source of plot-waste is the video-diary Grace forces him to perform, obviously a direct feed to their military and corporate handlers (is Cameron trying to make his audience paranoid of its social-media ties while making mother-figure Grace appear foolish? Cleverly he shows us a reverse of how the computer sees him.). While aspects of utopian bio-genetic structuralism lure the audience with intensive and futurist group eco-therapy, the film seems more concerned plot-wise with our recent past colonizing the Americas and erasing form-connections between native image and knowledge. The Nav'i (Native-Avatars) are dead ringers for the harassed, evacuated and now nearly erased Indians that now nickname our military's flying hardware. There are enough broken arrows aimed at bullet-proof glass to veer slightly into self parody. The American blockbuster ethos seems like a playground of Native-myths searching for a resurrection in our language (see esp. the Skywalker regime). The way west transformed into third-stage mythmaking (past the scrubby predecessor Europeans). Unfortunately like all unconscious colonizers, he's thinking like an American but acting like a King's subject, he can't seem to connect to new myths or new forms beyond those narratives of the early 20th century, he's simply refitting our catastrophe to theirs, a somewhat conservative approach (that's the disconnect, the planet is sure damn weird but the play he's having performed on it is oddly routine). War is war to him, its outcome looks no different than an Iraqi/Vietnam War exodus of technocrats leaving the Green Zone (and they my friend, are doing what everyone does when the film is over, they're our mirror, we ALL have to leave Pandora behind). He still thinks innovation lies in the hybridization between 'freethinkers' like Sully and the static-continuity of local wisdom (a leaky trope taken from James Fenimore Cooper or worse, Kipling); it's Sully after all who does what the Nav'i themselves did not know how to do. He calls in the biological ground and airstrike via the fiber-optic tree (he prays to the econet) AND conquers the forbidden, legendary and flame-painted 'last-shadow' (he has no fear of what the Nav'i fear). All within 25 minutes of screentime.
Sully's tree request has its direct feed from Amerindian history: The Ghost Dance. This epochal last resort prayed for an end to the Indian Wars by sweeping the Europeans out of the Americas through a mystical armageddon. Congress outlawed it and Avatar parallels it with Quaritch's planned Tree of Souls destruction. Cameron, like Sully, brings the Ghost Dance mythology to life to boost his climax and turn an impossible tide. Pandora's merely a vector for an American trope lead by a hero that can't decide if he's really joining the locals. Watch the back-and-forth, we think Sully can't decide if he's human or acting Nav'i as a ruse, but of course he's going native. Cameron thinks he can sustain tension at this level of the plot, when really the conflict lay in the how, not the why of it. This is a common failure of recent blockbuster narratives, a genre regressing faster than it can evolve. Directors like Cameron haven't gotten scientific about why the product has to be emotional but he's the sharpest at pivoting emotions when the audience needs something besides adrenaline to hold on to. He crassly uses ancient markers of film-sentimentalism to get us to well-up on cue (he engages James Horner for this unexotic task). The problem at the core of Avatar lies in its activist plotting outmoded by craft advancement. A megathinker like Cameron believes that by reverse-engineering propaganda, the film's messages can warn us against our impending eco-disasters here. Instead he falls into the first paradox of all anti-war/anti-technology 'message' films: the war is too riveting, it drives the pulse rate and brings us back for more. To be as revolutionary as Cameron thinks he is, he had to attack the baseline of humanity: the meaning of the issues, the definitions of the words and symbols we use to discuss ecology and commercial exploitation. Instead Cameron does his work in the casting phase hitting up great actors who embody archetypes that can submit to the film's black and white ideas of good and evil. For all its visual advances, Avatar is still spiritually Manichean, an approach that turns heads without altering them.
Sully's not employing particularly earth-based innovations (ha! they're universal) but Cameron wants us to think he is, maybe he assumes the final, only worthwhile earth-export is 'thinking outside the box'. The lack of proof is in the videogame: Cameron doesn't fold his mediums, he farms out a paint-by-numbers from Ubisoft simply because the economics require it - Cameron's alter-ego is slightly more the steroided Colonel than the open-minded Sully. Cameron is still a masterful even revolutionary technician despite his considerable conservatism (the action sequences are more riveting than lately Lucas/Spielberg/McTiernan, the optical detailing, gaseous distortions, exhaust streams, and the machinery are staggering in execution, they are not to be missed. And follow-through: the final battle between his G.I. Joe Colonel and Neytiri is a brilliant upgrade of Ripley's loader-assisted battle with the Queen Mother Alien. And his product is carefully visually crafted (he gets the scale shift between human and Nav'i dead-on, an inventive digital lens that captures forest floor alternating with a new eye-popping armageddon scale fluidly, a movie-first outside of Lucas and Spielberg, something Emmerich's Godzilla didn't, Spielberg's War of the Worlds did carefully, and Transformers does intermittently). The pairings between technology and bioform are crucial. The Nav'i's flying horses and the "last shadow" equate with the two scales of airframes (Spider and Gunship). Cameron even forms his cockpits as frozen rasterized versions of these creature's heads, and to square the point he applies a decal of a yellow dragon to the giant gunship of Quaritch's. Some subtle techniques developed in 2-D (in early silents) remerge finally in the 3-D, when Sully and Neytiri are exploring their languages and the meaning of seeing early in the film, Cameron has her look at the audience for a second after she spends the majority of shot looking down at Sully. This is the first 3-D film to weave parallax and character's eyeframes carefully (he knows the medium's technique flourishes with audience-character eye-contact: imagine City Lights or Donnie Darko in 3-D). Cameron's first two shots, a traveling shot over the forest canopy of, what is guessed is, a real image of earth's fauna and a screen filling cloud (a flash of memory for all of us and hopefully the only special effect-free shot in the film), and a zero-g close-up of beads of water merging under purple light (a sly SFX nightmare version of that natural cloud), indicates that he's got the nuances in play, it has the feeling of being visionary. Is it visionary? Only at its petri stage, what Cameron could have grown as a narrative, not what happens here. In a film that continuously references the idea of seeing both in English and Nav'i (and unspoken: film's own visual definition), he ends the film with more than a nod to 2001. It's a direct copy. A now 'unified' Sully (unified in his avatar by the Pandoran network) opens his eyes looking directly at the audience, if only for a split second. Cameron, who knows he is the heir to sci-fi's baton, is also its current placeholder for the next visionary. Maybe visionary is next up in Avatar 2.
Two final shots, supposedly one message. Stars migrate from background to face. Stepping forwards or stepping back?