The Avatar (novel)

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Anderson, Poul. The Avatar. New York City: Berkley/Putnam, 1978. "Published by BERKLEY Publishing | Distributed by G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS, New York." See Internet Speculative Fiction Database for translations, award (nomination), and reprints: as of December 2022, here.[1] Edited by David G. Hartwell — at least the Book Club Edition, which we consulted.

From a 1997 on-line review possibly by Thomas W. Wagner, who, in any event owns the copyright for that review.

The Avatar is an ambitious, often poetic interstellar epic detailing humankind’s first contact with a mysterious, unseen (shades of 2001), mega-advanced race of aliens known only as the Others. [...]

The story concerns the existence of T-machines [sic], transportation portals scattered throughout space and time by the Others in an effort to help various interstellar species move amongst the stars and evolve. Daniel Broderson, a tycoon and provocateur living on the only off-world colony yet established as a result of humanity’s use of the T-machines, hopes these devices will indeed usher in a mass of human expansion throughout space. He is at loggerheads, though, with [...] anti-expansionist politicos on Earth, who seek to keep humanity earthbound [...].

So when an Earth craft, the Emissary, returns to the Solar System after having used the T-machine to contact the advanced race [of] the Betans, and the craft is interdicted and news of its return suppressed, Broderson has himself — and his lover, who becomes a key character later on — smuggled back to the Solar System to free the crew and hopefully announce to all the world what their governments have been up to, bringing the whole house of cards tumbling down.

[...] But in its second half The Avatar switches gears, as Broderson and his team find themselves lost in space and forced to embark on a survival quest for the Others themselves. This part is consistently reminiscent of the superior Tau Zero [...]. [***]

The characters carry the novel. Of particular note are Joelle Ky, the “holothete” trained in a technology which allows her literally [i.e., in a kind of mind-meld] to become one with her computers and their vast store of data, and who finds reality wanting as a result of her skills [...].[2]

The holothete issue is central, but note also (in addition to interesting moderate Right/libertarian politics of the time):

• First Contact with the Others was with a robot (a "computer-effector system" [p. 68; ch. 8]), and speculation — if only momentary — that the Others may be robots (pp. 24-25; ch. 3).
• Chapter VIII gives backstory and exposition in the form of a script for "a documentary on the whole subject, intended for schools, which contains much original material" on First Contact with the Others and information, as known on Earth, about the "star gate" T machines (p. 64, ch. 7; "star gates" on p. 113, ch. XI; see 2001: A Space Odyssey, ch. 40).
 •• T Machine: The Acknowledgments in the front-matter of the book, begins with Anderson noting that "The T machine is not entirely a figment of my imagination" and giving references to "Its basic principle" as "described by F. J. Tipler in Physical Review" with citations to the relevant publications. In chapter VIII, we're told in a fictional educational film of the "T machine" apparently short for "a Tipler machine," with the name "in honor of the theoretician who [...] published in 1974 a paper on this exact subject [...]. What it amounts to [...]is this. A cylinder of ultra-dense matter, spinning at a speed in excess of one-half light's, will generate a field. Not a force-field, in the proper sense. Call it, instead, a region in which some quantities vary according to your position. A body passing through that field can be transported directly from event to event. In more popular language, depending on what path it takes, it can go from any point in space-time to any other in range of the machine" (p. 69). I.e., there would be the possibility of faster-than-light travel and time travel. For a Wikipedia discussion of the actual suggestion by Frank J. Tipler, see "Tipler cylinder" at link here.[3]
• Chapter XI, titled "The Memory Bank" (as is chapter XXIII; the others are just numbered in Roman numerals): Includes exposition on a featured alien sapient species in addition to the Others, the Betans (pp. 109-14), which gets into relations among evolution and sexual dimorphism, gender and technology — and from there economics and exploration.


Holothetes in mind-meld (our term, out of Star Trek) with computers and linked potentially to the main spacecraft of the story, other sentients, and in communion with capital "R" Reality of the universe, and both humans and transhuman:

 • • Joelle feeling (and becoming) one with the spaceship: p. [364]; ch. XLIII). Cf. and contrast Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang and the related works linked there.
• Joelle Ky, Holothete, at least in her mind (italics removed): "In your mind, Chris, you are an ordinary linker" with computers, "I am a godlike holothete" — a transhumanity she denies here, but thinks about (ch. XI, p. 107; see also ch. XLIV, p. 372 and passim for Joelle Ky's thinking herself posthuman, and having to return to her humanity [ch. XLVII, p. 390, and see below]).
• Chapter XXIII, the second "The Memory Bank" has a substantial data-dump on the topic introduced by the first sentence, "'The human brain, and hence the entire nervous system, can be integrated with a computer of the proper design,' the speaker was droning" (p. [194]). The same holds true of the Betan brain (see below). We also get background on perceiving concepts and construction as opposed to more direct experience of Reality. We will mix references and note the usual apprehension of phenomena as opposed to, or Realized by, the comprehension of noumena: things in themselves/The Thing In Itself. And then acting on at least things on a very deep level, e.g., "manipulating individual amino acids within protein molecules" (pp. 196-97).
•• The lecture is followed by a scene where we see "human and computer" can become "a whole," a single whole — and linking more than one human (pp. 200-01). And the linked human can go very deep, where "The cosmos of the cell was a Nirvana that danced" (p. 202) and very large, to where, in an orgasmic moment "Radiance exploded outward. The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God sang for joy" (p. 203): kind of combining the sexual catastrophism of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love[4] and the theophany climaxing the poetic portion of the Book of Job (38.7).[5] (Perhaps with a foreshadowing of Douglas Hofstadter's 1979 book, Gödel, Escher, Bach;[6] see Bach reference, p. 203, followed by a reference to "the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, p. 205.)[7]

• On Joelle's sense of Joelle, during free time when she can confront herself: 

(The rest [of the crew on the spaceship] talked or sang or watched shows, that kind of thing. She cared for none of it. Theoretically she could have retreated into her head, where mathematics and the memory of the Noumenon dwelt, as she frequently did at leisure. But the dull, sweaty exertions were too nagging.) Worse, just as she was on the edge of dreams, more and more she would rouse with a gasp and a sense of following into a fathomless pit. [...]

Why do I care that Dan [Broderson] no longer cares [about her as a lover and/or person]? He was never more to me than an animal, smarter and stronger than most, excellent in bed, yet only an animal to fill some hours when I was only an animal. (pp. 239-40; ch. XXVI)

Cf. and contrast a cyberpunk character like Case on "meat" in the non-virtual world.[8] Whatever the authors' developing attitudes, the The Avatar and important cyberpunk texts are ambivalent on freedom from the flesh.

• Joelle looking forward to when "I shall again be One with the All" (p. 182; ch. XX); cf. and strongly contrast non-mediated merging with the "Overmind" in A. C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953). Note also the immediately-introduced thought about Joelle, "Will you become, for us, what the Others refused to be?" (p. 182).
•• One sequence in The Avatar — on "the Oracle" (ch. XXXVII, pp 331 f.) — can usefully be put into dialog with Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1974), and far more so Anderson's "the Others," not with the Others of 2001 — a band of australopithecines — but in dialog with the E.T.s in Chapter 32 of Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which ends: "A few mystically inclined biologists went still further" on possible evolution of a truly advanced species. "They speculated [...] that mind would eventually free itself from matter. The robot body" into which the E.T.'s had transferred their consciousnesses "would be no more than a stepping-stone to something which, long ago, men had called 'spirit.' ¶ And if there were anything beyond that, its name could only be God" (Penguin-ROC reissue, p. 180). Chapter 37, "Experiment," goes beyond speculation and states directly that in the universe of 2001 the E.T.s had evolved to where "They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships." But, as speculated, that "age of the Machine-entities swiftly passed. In their ceaseless experimenting, they," the E.T.'s, had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself [....], free at last from the tyranny of matter." Though "lords of the galaxy," and "despite their godlike powers, they had not wholly forgotten their origin, in the warm slime of a vanished sea" (pp. 195-96).
••• In The Avatar, we're reliable told, "'The one thing which they are not whom you call the Others, is gods'" (ch. XLIV, p. 376) — significantly juxtaposed to sections where Joelle feels strongly that she has become one who has "gone beyond the human" (ch. XLIV, p. 372) and is soon told in a kind of Other-ophany, to "Go to your fellow humans and be one among them" (p. 375).   
• As the story progresses, then, Joelle both denies and thinks of herself as explicitly "transhuman" and at least sees others seeing her as beyond human.

Oh, yes, Joelle did not reply. How often I've met this. You [another crew member] are the mere linker, I the supreme holothete. Your eagerness is to know you've been of use to me. Like Chris, like Chris [an earlier colleague and lover].

You'll see me in my linkage, that you are not capable of, ascending to a heaven you can never reach but which you have glimpsed in fragments. I will touch the Absolute, I will be in the Noumenon,[9] I will know Final Reality, not as a mathematic construct but immediately, in my brain and bones. (p. 193; ch. XXII)

Near the end of the novel, Joelle concludes that "In spite of our heliocentric tricks, we" — all humans — "will remain lower animals," and/but will be advised by another character, who turns out to be "The Avatar" of the Others to "Learn to be human again" and move away from "the Noumenon," which Joelle has come to see as "that shabby fiction" (pp. 389-90, 391; ch.XLVII).

RDE, finishing, 31Dec22