Welcome to JOSH SULLY'S world.
It is a century from now, and the population of our tired planet has tripled. Finally, drowning in its own toxic waste, starvation and poverty, the population has topped out at a nice even 20 billion. The Earth is dying, covered with a gray mold of human civilization. Even the moon is spiderwebbed with city lights on its dark side. Overpopulation, over-development, nuclear terrorism, environmental warfare tactics, radiation leakage from power plants and waste dumps, toxic waste, air pollution, deforestation, pollution and overfishing of the oceans, global warming, ozone depletion, loss of biodiversity through extinction... all of these have combined to make the once green and beautiful planet a terminal cess-pool.
Josh lives in the urban sprawl which has grown like kudzu over the whole eastern US. His particular part of this undifferentiated concrete rat- warren is Charlotte, NC, but you could be anywhere. Its the same crowded, gray, trash-strewn high-tech squalor. The walls are gray, the sky is gray... the people are gray. They shuffle past each other in dense crowds, shoulder to shoulder, unwashed because of the water shortages, and sickly looking from the bankrupt diet of cheap carbohydrates and synthetic proteins.
It looks like a cross between THX-1138 and a Calcutta train station. Josh has it a little worse than most because of his involvement in a stupid little war people barely remember. He is paralyzed from the waist down, and his useless legs hang twisted and shrunken down the front of his wheelchair. Josh still wears his army jacket, and with his unkempt beard and hair, and surly eyes, he is pretty much ignored by the crowds which buffet him like surf.
Just another angry vet, a piece of discarded human trash. Josh fights his way to work every day on the crowded subway. And every night he goes home to a tiny cubicle of an apartment in a vast government housing project. The room is reminiscent of a cell at a federal prison, which is pretty much what it is. The amenities look like they are from a 747, which is to say they are efficient, space conscious, and are about a hundred years old. There is a single fluorescent fixture, which casts a sterile light over the grimy walls. It flickers constantly.
One entire wall (all seven feet of it) is a TV screen. On it we get a wider view of the world, and it's nothing to write home about. There is a breaking story about a fire in a Boston subway which asphyxiated over a hundred people. Not unusual these days. This is followed by a feature about the death, in Kenya, of the last lion living outside captivity. This leads to a recap of the state of the environment overall, and it's grim.
The oceans are overfished and barren, poisoned by toxic runoff. All whales and at least half the Earth's fish species are extinct. On land over half the species extant at the beginning of the century are now gone forever, with most of the remaining endangered. The human race, using its technical ingenuity, has learned to keep itself alive, but it has lost almost all contact with the natural world, which it has strangled and crushed out of existence. There are no national parks left, only housing projects and protein farms. Yosemite is an upscale condo development. Most ocean-front property is used for mari-culture, since the only food source efficient enough to feed everyone these days is spirulina.
It's amazing the things you can do with algal protein concentrate if you know your spices. Josh Sully is a hopeless guy in a hopeless world, a little guy whom the big machine has ground up and spit out. Josh gets a call from a computer at the municipal admin complex. The automated voice tells him politely that his brother, Thomas Sully, has been killed in a transit system accident in Boston, and he is required to claim the body by 1200 tomorrow. His brother died choking in the smoke of the subway fire which Sully had seen on the news.
CUT TO SULLY at the Boston municipal crematorium. He sits next to a large cardboard box, about seven feet long, sitting on the rollers waiting to go into the furnace. In the box is his brother's body. We see that they are identical twins. There is no other family there. Josh watches the attendant cover his brother's body with the top of the cardboard box, then efficiently band it with two plastic straps, like he's getting ready to ship it somewhere. Then the box is rolled into the furnace, and the burners are lit. As he is wheeling himself through the crowded halls of the municipal complex, Sully hears someone calling his name and sees two guys in suits working their way through the crowd to catch up with him. He is immediately suspicious, wondering what collection agency they are from. His brother must have died with some debts.
They tell him they are with the RDA, the RESOURCES DEVELOPMENT ALLIANCE. This is an international consortium of major corporations whose purpose is to find and exploit resources on other planets, both within the solar system, and in the last 25 years, among the nearer star systems. Imagine the Dutch West India Company funded by Microsoft, Matsushita and a dozen or so of their megacorporation buddies. Everyone just calls it "THE CONSORTIUM".
The RDA has an official charter from the ICA, the Interplanetary Commerce Administration (pronounced eye- kah), an international trade-regulating body run much like the EC is today. The charter allows them to exploit the resources of planets, moons, asteroids... whatever they find... as long as they follow the International Space Resources Treaty, and the other treaties which prohibit weapons of mass destruction and limit military power in space.
These two guys ask Josh if he knows anything about what his brother was doing in the last year. He says they weren't that close. He knows that Tom had made some deal to work in space, but he couldn't talk about it because he'd signed some kind of non-disclosure agreement. It turns out the suits are interested in Josh because of his genes. Tom Sully had signed up to something called the Avatar Program. In the Avatar Program you sign a ten year contract to work on Pandora, a planet of the Alpha Centauri starsystem.
Like everyone, Josh has heard of Pandora, or more properly Alpha Centauri B-4. Discovered by the first interstellar expedition twenty five years ago, Pandora has been the single most interesting thing to happen to the human race in ages. The news services love to run clips of the wild scenery on Pandora, and its bizarre flora and fauna. To a culture which has lost all contact with the natural world, Pandora is mysterious, primal, and terrifying. So what the hell was Tom doing going to Pandora? The suits take Josh to dinner, and he even gets to order real steak. They explain what's going on.
There is, of course, a primitive humanoid species on Pandora, as anybody who watches the news would know. They are called the NA'VI, using their word for themselves. The humans usually refer to them clinically as the Pandorans, and colloquially as "the locals". Humans cannot live on Pandora without breathing gear, because the atmosphere is toxic. Lethal levels of ammonia, methane and chlorine. The Consortium is trying to bridge the cultural gap with the aboriginal population, which has been difficult to communicate and negotiate with. They have recently started a program called AVATAR. They take DNA from a Na'vi, and from a selected human volunteer. On Earth, in company genetics labs, they create an in-vitro embryo, which is a genetic composite of the alien and human donor.
The recombinant embryo is grown in-vitro during the flight to Pandora, which takes 3 years (ship-time/ 5 years Earth time... it's a relativity thing). In that time it reaches near adult size, since the locals mature fast. When it is "born" (or more properly de-canted) as a post-adolescent, it looks like a Na'vi, and can live comfortably on Pandora, but it has enough human neurophysiology to be used as an Avatar, or surrogate body.
The human volunteer then becomes a CONTROLLER. Using PSIONIC LINK technology, the human controller can remotely control the avatar body out in the wilds of Pandora. The controller receives all sensory input, and provides all motor control to the body. Essentially, the controller lives through the avatar, and is completely unaware of his own body while linked. Each avatar is genetically keyed to its respective human controller. By communicating with the locals through these avatars, which are less alien to them, the RDA has had some success teaching them English and basic skills.
So Tom was going to be one of these controller guys? That's right, they tell him. His embryo has been growing in vitro at the lab for several months. This is significant since only one in a hundred volunteers actually produces a viable composite. Each viable embryo represents an investment of over 20 million dollars. So they are offering Josh the same contract they gave his brother. Since he is genetically identical, he can step into his brother's shoes, and become a controller. The next mission leaves in three weeks, so he will have to go through a crash training course, but it's still better than wasting a good avatar.
The agents grin like jackals. The pay is great, and it's a chance to be part of the great adventure. Josh tells them he went for that line about it's not a job, it's an adventure once already, and it cost him the use of his legs. And ten years is too long a stint to sign up for. The army taught him a couple things. He tells them to take a hike. One of the Consortium agents leans close to him. He says that as an avatar he will have legs. Long powerful legs, and he can run again.
PUSH IN ON JOSH, thinking about that. And you see in his eyes... he's going to go for it.