Ben Bova: ‘Avatar’ exciting, even if film’s plot isn’t entirely novel

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“Avatar” is the first Hollywood smash hit of the new decade, and deservedly so.

I enjoyed the film, even though some of its key concepts are eerily similar to a novel of mine, “The Winds of Altair,” originally published in 1973.

Many of my fans have pointed out those similarities, and there’s been a bit of a storm of protest among the bloggers. I appreciate their sense of outrage, but I don’t feel it’s entirely justified.

Here’s the nub of the controversy.

“The Winds of Altair” is about a group of volunteers from Earth who have been sent to an alien planet orbiting the star Altair to prepare it for human settlement. The planet’s environment is very hostile: the volunteers have to practically remake the planet before it can be fit for human habitation.

Conditions on the planet’s surface are so hostile, in fact, that humans can’t work there. They try to adapt some of the local animals to work for them. They control the animals through electronic brain implants that allow humans to manipulate them while safely aboard the orbiting space ship.

The human volunteers are members of a religious sect that has recruited hundreds of thousands of the poorest people on Earth to come to the “new paradise” of the alien world. Those immigrants are on their way and the “new paradise” isn’t even livable for humans.

The novel’s protagonist, one of the young volunteers who is in electronic control of one of the planet’s animals, begins to realize that in order to make the planet fit for human habitation, the planet’s native life forms must be wiped out.

It’s a moral dilemma.

Much the same kind of situation forms the key plot element of “Avatar,” although the film and my novel arrive at very different conclusions.

In the film, the protagonist is a young, crippled ex-Marine who is serving as a controller of one of the animals on the surface of the alien world. The animal was produced by human scientists out of a mixture of human and alien DNA — a dubious biological feat, but that’s not important to the story.

The humans want to exploit the planet’s natural resources, especially a mineral dubbed “unobtainium,” which for unexplained reasons is vitally important to Earth.

This is indeed a sticking point for me. The universe is made of pretty much the same stuff. It’s difficult to imagine a mineral existing on a planet of another star that doesn’t also exist within our own solar system — or, indeed, on Earth itself. It’s even more difficult to imagine any resource that’s so precious it could be profitably transported over interstellar distances. That just doesn’t make economic sense.

Be that as it may, the movie devolves into a fairly standard good-guy, bad-guy scenario. The bad guys are the greedy corporate suits from Earth and the troops they use to invade and exploit the alien planet. The good guys are the natives, who live in harmony with their environment, and the precious few humans who side with them and against their own comrades.

To me, Cameron’s film resembles “Dances With Wolves” more than “The Winds of Altair.”

Be that as it may, long, long ago, in a galaxy far away (actually, it was in California), I was involved in a plagiarism suit against a Hollywood studio and a major television network.

In this case, the guys we sued actually did plagiarize a script that Harlan Ellison and I had written. They even hired the same actor we had suggested to star in the show. We sued. We won. It took four years, but we won.

James Cameron has not plagiarized my work. Plagiarism is when someone steals the words you’ve written and uses them as his own. Ideas are a different matter. Ideas can’t be copyrighted or patented. Ideas are free.

In fact, the basic idea in “The Winds of Altair” had been explored in earlier science-fiction stories, most notable Poul Anderson’s 1957 novelet, “Call Me Joe.”

Wherever the ideas came from, “Avatar” is a startlingly exciting motion picture. You don’t have to be a science-fiction fan to be swept away by it.

Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “The Return,” his latest futuristic novel. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com

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