It's not easy messing around in the fictional sandbox of a famous director, especially one as exacting as James Cameron.
Cameron's "Avatar," which opens in the U.S. on Dec. 18, tells the story of an imperiled race of sentient beings on the distant moon of Pandora. Jim and his team have created a world that's difficult to constrain within a feature-length film (even a really long feature film). Many of the elements that pass by swiftly in the movie -- plants, animals, vehicles, Na'vi artifacts -- took months to create and often represent stories unto themselves.
The book "Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora," was conceived of as a companion piece to the epic of Avatar, and a good home for the excess of remarkable art and ideas to emerge from its creation. We expect that many filmgoers will want to learn more about, say, the top ground speed of a direhorse, the aerodynamics of a banshee, or the RPM of the .50 caliber Hydra.
As fantastical as Pandora may seem, all of its elements are fully grounded in present-day science. Jim gave his writers leeway to ascribe attributes to animals or to the moon of Pandora itself -- "to riff," as Jim told us. But if the ideas didn't have the ring of truth -- if they didn't add another layer of reality onto his beautiful fictional world -- we would hear about it.
The conceit for the book came during a long wait for copies at a Kinko's on Sunset Blvd. Standing in line, with Xerox on the brain, my co-author Maria Wilhelm recalled the crude carbon copies of Samizdat, the subversive material that was spread hand-to-hand throughout the Soviet bloc. We thought that any book about the world of Avatar should have the same feel; rough but beautiful, secret, cobbled together, and dangerous to possess. Samizdat was more in sync with the broader themes of Avatar, (which depicts a future Earth on the verge of environmental and social collapse) and also more in line with Jim's other films.
Working with Jim, producer Jon Landau and editor Jennifer Schulkind, we imagined an anonymous leader of a shadowy activist group who would also look to Samizdat for inspiration. Working off-line on antiquated computer printers, the leader would disseminate confidential documents smuggled or stolen from the Resources Development Administration (RDA), the megacorporation that runs Pandora with an iron fist. The book would be a kind of survival guide for fellow travelers who needed to know all of the secrets of Pandora withheld from them by the RDA. The conceit would also provide the book designers with the opportunity to create a work that feels rough around the edges, yet remains as inviting as an old issue of National Geographic -- a field guide with a bad attitude and flamethrowers.
Our challenge was to supply prose to the film's poetry. Amateur astrophysicist Jim Tanenbaum worked closely with Cameron to define the science of the Alpha Centauri System and the strange geology of Pandora. Wanda Bryant, an ethnomusicologist at Cal Arts, created a remarkably detailed musical universe for the Na'vi. Randall Frakes gave form to the animals. Richard Taylor, an effects wizard at Weta Workshop in New Zealand, described RDA weapons and also came up with some very cool stories about Na'vi artifacts. Stephen Ballantyne, a business writer in New Zealand, gave incredible richness to the corporate culture of the RDA. Prof. Jodie Holt, chair of the botany department at UC Riverside, imagined plants that could gobble up xenon and others that could make you fall in love. And linguist Paul Frommer created a language for the Na'vi rivaled only by Klingon. (An abridged Na'vi-English dictionary is included in the book.)
Cameron, at least, seems pleased with the results. But we know that there's some very smart kid in Des Moines or Prague just dying to catch a flaw in our description of magnetic flux vortices or plate tectonics. That kid is a hell of a lot scarier to us than the fiercest creature on Pandora.
Pandora, home of the Na'vi, orbits Polyphemus, a gas giant planet in the Alpha Centauri A star system. Jim Tanenbaum, a sound engineer and world-class amateur astrophysicist, proposed much of the science in the book. There were long discussions with Cameron over the nature of the system, the makeup and density of Pandora's atmosphere, its level of vulcanism, and so on. During one debate with Tanenbaum regarding the discovery of Pandora, Cameron left the conference table and returned a few moments later with a hat that said “HMFIC.” Head Motherfucker in Charge. Everyone laughed. But the debate was over.
The floating mountains of Pandora hover thousands of meters above the surface and are the staging ground for Iknimaya, a treacherous right-of-passage in which a prospective Na'vi warrior must select (and be selected by) his or her ikran or “banshee.” As conceived by Cameron, the stone monoliths float due largely to the same force that causes magnets to repel one another. They are called the “Hallelujah Mountains” because their presence portends the wealth of unobtanium, a rare superconductor found only on Pandora.
Jim Cameron seems to have a special place in his heart for the mountain banshee, a fierce winged creature that has a marquee role in the film. Cameron's extensive knowledge of marine biology has found its way to Pandora, where many of the plants and animals have characteristics of sea creatures. The banshee, for example, is believed to have descended from sea life because of its fish-like jaw structure. Many Pandoran creatures have flow-thru respiratory systems similar to that of a Terran manta ray.
The SN-9 Wasp Revolver is manufactured by Masa-Cirre and is often acquired privately by soldiers when standard-issue sidearms just won't do the trick. It is the weapon of choice for Col. Miles Quaritch, head of security at Hell's Gate on Pandora. Quaritch carries the nine-inch pistol with the same affect as Gen. George Patton and his Colt .45. Cameron and crew imagined a very complete world, from massive interstellar vehicles, to weapons, down to ceremonial wooden bowls used by the Na'vi.