Friday, December 25, 2009


“Whatever has been is what will be, and whatever has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.” - Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 1:9

As I was reading synopses and reviews of James Cameron’s new SF epic Avatar, it occurred to me that certain elements of the story were... familiar. And, no, I’m not talking about the obvious parallels between Avatar and Dances with Wolves. I’m referring to the science-fictional underpinnings of the film.

Hmmm, lessee. Crippled guy uses futuristic technology to transport his mind into an alien body, eventually “going native” when he realizes that life as a strong, healthy alien is better than life as a crippled, miserable human. Why, that sounds vaguely familiar! It’s a story that is well-known to any reasonably serious SF reader: Poul Anderson’s “Call Me Joe.”

In Anderson’s 1957 short story, Ed Anglesey, a crippled, bad-tempered scientist uses an electronically-enhanced telepathic link to control an artificially-created lifeform that is capable of living on Jupiter. The story focuses mostly on the psychology of Anglesey and that of the creature (“Joe”) he controls; by the end of the story, Joe has taken over and become self-aware, subsuming whatever is left of Anglesey.

While the plot of Avatar is certainly different, the premise is strikingly similar.

This sort of “kinda-sorta plagiarism” is nothing new in Hollywood. It was an issue with Mike Judge’s dystopian comedy Idiocracy, which bore an awful lot of similarity to Cyril Kornbluth’s cynical 1951 short story “The Marching Morons.”

It was also evident in last year’s short-lived cop series “New Amsterdam,” which looked remarkably just like a teevee version of Pete Hamill’s novel Forever.

And James Cameron himself is no newbie at this. Harlan Ellison, the notoriously prickly SF writer, sued Cameron after Terminator came out, based on certain components of that film’s premise that appeared to have been “borrowed” from a couple of Ellison’s scripts for the old Outer Limits series. In one, “Soldier,” a brutal warrior from the far future is transported back to 1964; in another, “Demon With a Glass Hand,” a man discovers that he is really a robot... sent back to 1960’s Earth from 1000 years in the future after aliens have conquered the planet. Ellison eventually received screen credit.

Look: As Ecclesiastes pointed out a looooong time ago, there is nothing new under the sun. Ideas morph, change, grow, evolve. And anyone who grew up reading science fiction or watching it on the big or small screen is going to have had some exposure to certain storylines. But if you’re gonna use them, you should at least throw a Credit-Bone to the guys who thought ’em up.

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