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The Punch Line Is That It's Literally Animated

aquato's picture

Fiction often tackles the issue of western society’s exploitation of the environment. It allows readers to view a world without them and see certain causes and effects without any real-life repercussions. Inevitably in this type of fiction, there is one person who is more ecologically aware than the rest, usually due to some predisposed connection with the environment. In both Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” and Nickelodeon’s fantasy cartoon Avatar: The Legend of Korra, each showcases a character like this. How applicable are these stories and characters to real life?

Le Guin’s character Osden is a “sensor” whose job on a surveying trip is to do just that—sense. He is an empath, able to feel the emotions of anything around him, and translate it to others. Avatar’s titular protagonist Korra is the avatar, the one bridge between the human and spirit worlds, tasked from birth with the responsibility of maintaining balance between the two. Due to many circumstances, the two worlds, which were separated for thousands of years, suddenly converged. A big example of this is illustrated in a giant new “spirit swamp” that has rooted itself in the human world, growing its vines out into human cities. It is ancient, sentient and complexly interconnected, much like Le Guin’s World 4470—Korra can even touch a vine and sense what is happening in another part of the swamp, hundreds of miles away. Theoretically, this harmonic convergence should have brought the two worlds closer together, but the gap has never felt wider. Instead of creating newfound connections, an overanimated, self-important dictator has risen, abusing the spirit energy of the swamp’s vines to create a massive super weapon in order to take control. This exploitation has caused the swamp to react, fighting back and kidnapping people for some undisclosed reason (this is a very similar parallel to the plants in World 4470 responding to the fear of outsiders).

These two have their connections, yes, but not willingly. Perhaps they only connect because their responsibilities were placed upon them without their consent. Several times throughout the series, Korra laments her destiny, aggravated at how so much she is supposed to do, when she herself feels powerless. It is her duty to facilitate the feelings of the world, and there isn’t much she can do to shirk her responsibility. Osden, similarly, wishes about having to share in his crewmate’s “irrational terrors . . . his horrible cowardice, to have to cringe with him at everything” (Le Guin 158).

If Osden were not a sensor or Korra not the avatar, would they be as empathetic as they are? In Osden’s case, the other non-empaths left the planet to return home. They couldn’t handle the fear and panic of the forest like he could, and when he had given himself up to it, the rest all thought it unreasonable. The head coordinator tried rationalizing it, but could not. Korra’s situation, on the other hand, is a bit different, as she is not the only one concerned with balance in the world. True, she is the only person with her specific abilities and duties, but there are others who wish to help. A newly created nation of airbenders has taken it upon themselves to help Korra with her job.

So what can be gleaned from this? Our earth-bound society does not contain empaths or avatars. We don’t have these ecologically hyper-intelligent people who can literally communicate with spirits or nature. Osden and Korra are supposed to be filling reputable positions, where the Authority chose Osden for the survey and Korra is simply chosen to be the great peacekeeper. But even with this in mind, both are disrespected; the rest of the crew despises Osden and everybody constantly tells Korra that she isn’t needed anymore. Furthermore, there aren’t any magic vines kidnapping people in New York; we have no such striking response quite like that that lets us know we’re doing something wrong. Moreover, unlike “Vaster Than Empires”, we do not have the option of leaving. Our world is more so like Korra’s in that we must be dealing with the new, inescapable interconnectedness of the planet.

But do we need someone like that? If such a connected person hasn’t been working in either story—if the surveyors leave the planet forever and humans continue to exploit the spirit world—what’s to happen to the real world, where there is no one such person? On the contrary, it seems that these stories steer us away from relying on this sort of person. Utter dependence on one hyperaware activist leads to the rest of the masses neglecting their own individual responsibility to be aware, as indicated by the surveyor’s inability to stay and commit to the planet and the escalated exploitation of the spirit world. The issue is not so clear and transparent as these stories make it out to be, and requires more examination of the earth and our relation with it, even if it is not a fully sentient being. And like The Legend of Korra, our final episode is not out yet.


Works Cited

Hamilton, Joshua. "Beyond the Wilds." Avatar: The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon. New York City, New York, 28 Nov. 2014. Television

Le Guin, Ursula. "Vaster than Empires and More Slow." The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Short Stories. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. 148-178.


Anne Dalke's picture

Some reading notes on this paper:
* fun parallels between LeGuin’s story and Avatar!
* good deep question about whether empathy is what matters/makes a difference—or whether it might drive us to defensiveness and self-protection, rather than increased responsibility: this is too much for any one individual to take on…

Some talking notes, from our final writing conference:
* you think that you've worked on cutting the "talkiness," though it remains, "because it's fun to write that way," and because you resist editing, preferring to "write in one motion"
your theses are stronger, and you are glad about that: you've learned how to make an argument rather than just being descriptive, and also how to avoid being "grandiose," which (it turns out) is not really necessary
using the "outlining-webby" method is useful; so is focusing on transitions
we agreed that you will re-write paper #9, with a focus on the idea of "keeping your identity while expanding it" --i.e.: how can a woman's college change to continue to accept marginalized people? does doing this change the identity of "woman's college"? can we keep the identity of "woman's college," while interrogating and/or expanding the definition of "woman"? I'm nudging you to include in this revision some very concrete advice to the trustees about how to make this happen.