Monday, 25 June 2012

The Avatar II

Where would extrasolar aliens hide an artifact to be found by humanity only when we have started space travel? On the Moon (Arthur C Clarke). In the same orbit as Earth but on the other side of the Sun (Poul Anderson). Both artifacts are "star gates," but Clarke's is unexplained whereas Anderson's is a T machine, a large spinning cylinder, conceived by FJ Tipler, around which spacecraft can travel to other points in spacetime.

Thus, Anderson's The Avatar curiously combines the mundane (Keynsian economics on Earth) with the fantastic (because the T machine is a gate through both space and time, the characters are unsure of the temporal relationship between their home planet and their extrasolar colony.)

Anderson's sympathetic characters are gungho for as much interstellar travel as possible as soon as possible whereas his odious political villain, Ira Quick, is for channeling all resources into social welfare, therefore delaying all interstellar exploration indefinitely. He sees the population merely as voters and as passive recipients of governmental policies without any capacity for collective action. Anderson, as always, presents a credible account of this character's personality and motives but nevertheless portrays him as unpleasantly unscrupulous and manipulative. I am bound to think that a third position would be possible, addressing social problems and improving conditions on Earth while valuing the scientific knowledge to be gained by interstellar contact.

Quick thinks, of interstellar exploration:

"The best and the brightest gone off in search of mere adventure, when they could be serving." (1)

How many things are wrong with Quick's view? Maybe Cavor and Bedford went to the Moon in search of mere adventure but Armstrong and Aldrin went as agents of a large government agency which must have had its own agenda and in fact did not follow up Apollo with any further interplanetary journeys. Secondly, scientific exploration is not "mere adventure." We can get that by scuba diving or mountaineering on Earth. Thirdly, some of the "best and brightest" in the relevant sciences will want to go into space but others will indeed stay at home and "serve." Fourthly, Quick gives no thought to educational or other campaigns to mobilize his "general public" and "the poor" to address problems that surely do need a collective response.

I have reread the novel to a point where Quick is self-righteously planning a final solution for the returned explorers whom he has concealed and incarcerated. Thus, even a reader who had, improbably, agreed with Quick so far would have to reject his next step with revulsion. 

(1) Anderson, Poul, The Avatar, London, 1981, p. 103.


  1. Hi, Paul!

    Still reading the notes you've been writing. Don't always agree with your views, esp. about economics, but interesting. Been too long since I read THE AVATAR to really comment about it, however.

    And you've been inspiring me to reread a fair number of Anderson's books this year. MIRKHEIM and STARFARERS being two of them. I even found another Biblical quote Anderson used for STARFARERS. For an alleged agnostic, he certainly used the Bible a lot!


  2. Thanks. Of course, disagreements on economics. I try not to duck the issues but to engage with Anderson at the level of debate that his texts encourage, as if I were a citizen of each of the future societies envisaged. For example, I would debate with the hero of THE AVATAR while supporting him against the (particularly obnoxious) villain.
    Yes, there was a Biblical quote in STARFARERS. Blish was another agnostic hard sf writer who quoted the Bible a lot.

  3. Hi, Paul!

    Interesting. I've read a fair amount of Blish, mostly his "Cities in Flight" books and the "After Such Knowledge" series. But I don't remember him using the Bible much. Except possibly in A CASE OF CONSCIENCE?

    Now I'm seriously thinking of rereading THE AVATAR because of your comments here. Guess I'll have to continue neglecting H.G. Wells! (Smiles)


  4. Off the top of my head, Blish quotes from the Bible in THE NIGHT SHAPES, THEY SHALL HAVE STARS and MISSION TO THE HEART STARS but I think there is more.

    Although, Anderson is my current growth area, I have managed to construct a few additions to James Blish Appreciation as well.

  5. Hi, Paul!

    Understood! I liked what I read of Blish, mostly the books I've already cited. Although I'm not as big a fan of his work as you are. But, I do have great respect, in particular, for Blish's A CASE OF CONSCIENCE. A classic hard SF novel which treats religion and philosophy seriously.

    Anderson never wrote a whole novel based on a serious examination of religious and theological ideas. But he did treat such things with respect when they came up in his novels. One example being THE GAME OF EMPIRE. And he wrote some short stories which did center around such ideas. An example being "The Season of Forgiveness."

    And I am getting interested in rereading THE AVATAR!