Things Fall Apart by Chinua #Achebe, War of the Worlds, and Avatar


This evening I watched a science-fiction movie that came out three years ago, Avatar.    When I saw it as it first came out in the theaters, I was blown away at first by the world-creation that James Cameron had undertaken of the planet Pandora in the telling of the story of the film.    I read somewhere in the blogosphere that the plot of the movie was similar to that of another groundbreaking film from 1990 called Dances with Wolves.   Basically the movie starts off with the main character identifying as one of the colonial invaders into the land of a native people whose lifeways are being disrupted by their invasion.   Gradually the main character’s perspective changes to that of the native people and he is caught looking at his own culture through their eyes.    The difference in Avatar was that he helped them fight back–and they ended up winning!   It took the medium of science-fiction to criticize our own culture through the lens of a fictional set of aliens.

H. G. Wells was sympathetic to the various colonial peoples subjugated by the British empire, and decided to try to create a way for the British people to empathize with them through the medium of science fiction as well in his book War of the Worlds.   What if an alien race treated the British, and indeed all of humanity, in the same way that the British were treating various peoples around the world?    The result is his invention of a race of Martians whom he described in his opening lines as follows …

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”   Notice the lack of empathy of the Martians who saw man in the same dispassionate way that men study microbes.

In Things Fall Apart, you get to know the main character Okonkwo and see the life of his tribe in pre-colonial Nigeria through his eyes.   Then after the scene is set, the culture of his tribe is gradually distorted, and then destroyed by the colonial British who are colonizing Nigeria.    The culture’s destruction is presaged in the destruction of Okonkwo himself, and then, in the midst of sorrow for the passing of the hero, the last chapter’s perspective suddenly changes.

Rather than going from the colonizer to the colonized, like Avatar and Dances with Wolves, the last passage switches from the viewpoint of the colonized to that of the colonizer, and the tribe that Okonkwo comes from is described with the same scientific detachment and lack of empathy which H. G. Wells described men having towards microbes or, in his fictional tale, of Martians having towards men.

I read the story years ago in college, and out of respect for Chinua Achebe’s recent death, decided to re-read it.   Nothing prepared me for the shock of the ending, not just the death of the protagonist, or the death of a culture, but the death of perspective that the very last of the book describes.

I think that is why Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and War of the Worlds have all appealed to me because they do promote empathy with the other.   And the reason why Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a pleasure to read, although a difficult pleasure indeed, is because it shows clearly the beauty of another culture and the contrasting ugliness of a mindset that, unlike the greeting of the Nav’i people “I see you” in Avatar,  says essentially “I do NOT see you”.   Without the gift of empathy, which a writer like Chinua Achebe can nurture, it may be impossible for those here to see that they have more in common with the rest of the people of the world than they could ever have imagined at first.

We are one family, after all.

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