>Avatar and Anathem

>Within two weeks I’ve been transported to two entirely different worlds, neither of which I’ve wanted to leave. So I guess I’ll have to just shuttle between the two.

It’s a long time since I’ve been as swept away by a book as I was by Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. I’m a fan of Mr Stephenson, so was hoping for big things – also wondering if he could top the stupendous Cryptonomicon and Baroque Trilogy. Oddly, despite its massive size and scope, Anathem feels less sprawling than those earlier works, largely because Stephenson ditches the multi-POV approach and tells the story entirely from the viewpoint of Raz, an avout in a concent on the world of Arbre (no I’m not going to explain any of that). The story starts slow, but is never less than fascinating, and steadily builds up an astonishing head of steam. There’s enough discussion of matters both quantum and philosophical to melt your brain several times over, all presented by engaging characters in a fully realised and utterly unique world. And an extended orbital climax that’s as dramatic and witty and outrageously imagined as anything you could wish to read.

It’s also a long time since I’ve been as swept away by a movie as I was by James Cameron’s Avatar, I’m a fan, blah blah … Well, Mr Cameron’s done me proud and created a truly monumental film here. The story grabbed me from the get-go, and all the leads deliver fabulous performances, whether in their human or Navi form. Am I deliberately leading on these things and ignoring the eye candy? You bet, because the eye candy is what the movie’s being sold on, but without a story … well, you know the rest. As for the visuals … Cameron’s taken Barsoom and Pern and Dune and the Amazon rainforest, put them in a blender and come up with something that’s beautiful and spectacular and utterly convincing, in a way I’ve never seen before. Utterly convincing, and seductive, and alien and just plain real. And that’s coming from a long-time SF movie geek. My only carp is that here and there the pace could be a little tighter, but I can forgive Cameron because he does what Lucas failed to do in his prequel trilogy – he takes the time to immerse you in his imagined world, rather than rattling through it in fear you may get bored. Bored I wasn’t. When I finally stowed my 3D glasses and left the cinema, I felt like Jake Sully waking up back in his human body – I just wanted to go back to Pandora.

“Being original” is the Holy Grail for writers of speculative fiction. Neal Stephenson achieves it, I think. James Cameron’s working in a different, more conservative medium, with a lot more money at stake. So Avatar is derivative, where Anathem feels more wholly new. But Stephenson acknowledges his sources, just as Cameron does – check out his website for this generous list of background material he used while writing Anathem. And Cameron cites Burroughs et al as the inspiration for Avatar. Both, however, are skilled enough to stand on the shoulders of giants and see something nobody’s ever seen before – and open up the view for the rest of us to boot.

What made me enjoy Anathem and Avatar so much was the sure knowledge that Neal and James (I think we’re on first name terms now, guys) created their stories just for me. They know what I like. They know how to tease. They know how to send a shiver down my spine and prompt me to say, “Oh you clever, clever bastard” when they throw in an unexpected twist, or take the entire narrative up a gear, or show me something that simply takes my breath away. They keep tricks up their sleeves. They know they’re going to leave me both filled-up and sad when the last page turns and the credits roll.

So, right after Christmas, I’m booking my tickets. An excursion to Arbre first, followed by a sightseeing trip of Pandora. Because both these places are real, you see. It’s the only explanation. The only possible way Neal Stephenson can have written Anathem is by slipping sidways through Hemn Space into a parallel narrative (I’m not explaining that either). Likewise, James Cameron has clearly travelled to a breathtaking world inhabited by giant blue aliens you just want to hang out with. They’ve seen other worlds, and been kind enough to share their experiences. So it’s our duty to follow in their footsteps. What are you waiting for?

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