As you've seen and enjoyed, 2009 has been a great year for sci-fi. But as we come to the end of our mini-renaissance, and breathlessly wait to see where it will go, I can't help but see some very troubling themes within sci-fi fandom. For a genre that's all about being open minded and exploring the unknown, we're incredibly comfortable with it taking massive shortcuts right into the land of cultural and sexual stereotype.
If you've seen even a trailer for Avatar, you can't help but notice the obvious similarities between the Na'vi and Native Americans. There wouldn't have been a million Dances with Wolves jokes if it was subtle. It's no surprise that the movie paints them with an even broader tribal brush, though to be fair, it throws in some African and Aboriginal Australian anthropology so as to seem a little less obvious. But when you've cast the great Wes Studi as the Na'vi chief, you clearly want us to be imagining them as blue Powhatans, but without the responsibilities of portraying them accurately.
Avatar's production designer Rick Carter* basically said as much to the LA Times back in September: "Take Dances With Wolves. Although God knows it was a wonderful movie and did as well as any movie could hope to do, it still had to run in that middle ground between the truthful Indian existence, as perceived today, and what is acceptable to the Indian community and then still be a Hollywood-oriented star vehicle for Kevin Costner. There was a lot of lines to toe and issues of political correctness, almost, to tell that tale. Now if you go back and make a movie that tells the story and is free of that ... All of that creates a "there" where you can stage a story that you can tell with a real freedom. The three of four leaps that you've taken, if you make them credible, you can mirror back on those themes that you were talking about and say what you want about them."