December 20, 2008

Avatar -- which would you choose?

So anyone who's watched even a little bit of Avatar: the last Airbender will have asked himself, "which of those powers would I choose if I could have one?" For me the answer is obvious, but let's talk about them all first:

Air bending
ammo: There's virtually always air around
Coolest ability: flight
Practical uses? magical rake, magical snow shovel, but not really a lot else.
combat attack: air blasts, pretty much telekinetic blows. Also can create tornadoes, but hard to control and of limited use.
combat defense: air benders can dodge faster than anyone else

Fire bending
ammo: it comes from within.
Coolest ability: firing flame out of your hands is inherently cool. (Or hot.)
Practical uses? Not really any, except starting cooking fires without matches.
combat attack: flamethrower. Fire bending is all about attack
combat defense: no special defenses

Water bending
ammo: ice bergs, glaciers, rivers, and the sea. If you're away from those, you have to rely on spontaneous springs.
Coolest ability: icing up an enemy to freeze him in place
Practical uses? Can be used to catch fish. Also boat propulsion?
combat attack: firehose, ice balls, icing up an enemy.
combat defense: ice shields, moving water shields. Most effective against fire, least effective against earth.

Earth bending
ammo: the ground on which you walk. Don't try to fight at sea, though.
coolest ability: opening and closing doors in solid walls
Practical uses: see below
combat attack: throwing boulders, causing earthquakes beneath your enemy, turning the ground he walks on into quicksand. Also destroying city walls during sieges and taking out any fixed fortifications anywhere.
combat defenses: rock shields, which stop anything.

What strikes me is that for everyday life, earth bending is far and away the most useful of the four. You can dig ditches and canals, create city walls, dig mines, and build buildings; it's the civil engineer's dream power. Anything a bulldozer or a cement mixer can do, an earth bender can do faster, cheaper, and more easily.

In one-on-one combat, "on any given day" any of the four can prevail against any of the others, but overall earth benders have a substantial advantage. Their rock shields are the best defense and can stop anything except maybe a water-bender's firehose attack. High-speed thrown boulders are the most effective attack available to any of the four because they're the hardest to defend against. And as long as they're fighting on land, the earth benders never run out of ammo.

Plus, no walled city can stand against an army of earth benders, because the walls won't stand for long. On the other hand, earth benders are the best defenders you could ask for in a walled city, because even if the enemy does knock a city wall down (e.g. with siege engines or firehose attacks), the earth benders can repair it in minutes.

So though I really like the idea of being able to fly, I have to say that if I were to pick one, it would be earth bending.

Which would I least like? Water bending not only is almost useless in everyday life, it's also far less potent in combat. It works best against fire users, for obvious reasons, but it's nearly useless against earth benders. And in terms of where people live, and where they fight, water benders are the ones most likely to not have any ammo available. Where they're going to shine is in naval combat, for obvious reasons, but navies don't win wars. Armies do. (The Royal Navy didn't defeat Napoleon. The Athenian navy didn't defeat Sparta. There are exceptions in history but not damned many.)

All of them are awesome, and any trained bender is vastly stronger than a non-bender. These comments are about relative advantages of each against the others.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Engineer's Disease at 05:12 PM | Comments (14) | Add Comment
Post contains 639 words, total size 4 kb.

1 The only hitch with earth bending is that not all civil engineering jobs are equally glamorous.  As Sizemore the dirtamancer says in Erfworld, "When life gives you crap, make crap golems."

Posted by: Pixy Misa at December 20, 2008 06:35 PM (PiXy!)

2 Air bending has to be the most fun (although i could see how some would prefer water bending). Flying with a glider, or using the air scooter... Also while an army augmented by earthbenders would do better then one augmented by airbenders, one on one an airbender beats a earthbender (speed is everything).

Firebending also works well for clearing snow.

In straight magic to magic combat, the four styles are deliberately equal, and only the strength and skill of the benders matter.

In a fantasy setting you can make a career out of any of these, earthbending gets you construction, airbending makes you an awesome currior, waterbenders would be indispesable for a ship and firebending does lend itself to smithing.

Waterbending does have one critacal combat use that puts it at least as strong as the other that should be obvious to anyone who knows the genre (comes up ep 16).

I think the show demonstrates that a fair amount of intelligence and skill at planing holds it's own with any magic powers. It's what makes Iroh, Azula, and Sokka so important.

Posted by: Oscredwin at December 20, 2008 07:08 PM (UHSh9)

3 Being an earth-bender is a substantial advantage over using picks and shovels and wheelbarrows to do construction, but I can't see that being a fire-bender is really all that much different for a smith compared to anyone else using charcoal and/or coke. Sure, they can do it, but unless it turns out that fire-bender forged metal is somehow qualitatively different, it doesn't strike me as all that big a deal.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at December 20, 2008 07:52 PM (+rSRq)

4 Each bending art has its own strengths and weaknesses. Waterbending shows itself to be very versatile in the hands of a master.

As far as earthbending, they do in fact use it for all sorts of cool only-exist-in-fantasy-world construction projects, which you see a lot of during the second season, which focuses on the Earth Kingdom.

As for me, I'd pick airbending in a heartbeat. Flight, super-speed running, jumping, sort-of-telekinesis, it's the most fun.

Posted by: EvilOtto at December 20, 2008 08:44 PM (X+4PK)

5 Well, some of the practical benefits of being a water-bender are obviated by access to modern civilization. I don't normally worry about whether the water I'm drinking is pure. I've got a shower. I've got modern sewage systems.

Water-bending would be extraordinarily useful in replicating these benefits in societies without the technological background to do them "the easy way".

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at December 20, 2008 10:03 PM (7TgBH)

6 I saw airbending and firebending to be least "swingy" since their performance is pretty consistent over many environments. Waterbending depends rather heavily on nearby bodies of water and earthbending depends heavily on whether one is in the air or on the sea.

But air and fire are one trick ponies relative to water and earth. So I'm the type that'd be happy with either water or earth. They are far more useful on the whole, able to do combat and utility. Some environmental sensitivity is not too bad to gain that versatility.

Posted by: gaiaswill at December 21, 2008 01:32 AM (gctoU)

7 Hmmm, can an air bender remove air from a location. Say from a person's lungs?

Posted by: toadold at December 21, 2008 02:17 AM (zcbXo)

8 Earth benders could probably fly if it occurred to them.  They can certainly *jump*, by virtue of creating rapidly-rising earth towers just under their feet.  They can cause boulders to hover and then fly through the air, so I see no reason they couldn't be standing on those boulders as they tossed them around.

Likewise, they could fake the other three schools by various tricks.  Dust-bending would be much like air bending.  Enough friction with the dust gets you fire-bending, and mud-bending would allow you to do most water-bending stunts if you don't mind being messy about it.

Ultimately it's all atoms.

Posted by: jabrwok at December 21, 2008 09:39 AM (WfFpP)

9 Jim Butcher's "Furies" series explores this idea too...just about everybody in the country has some ability to manipulate or summon Furies based on the same 4 elements.  Earth Furymasters build, Water is healing/emotions, Fire is metalworking and fighting...   There are faint historical markers of a pre-Fury civilization where they supposedly built things by hand.  Nobody, of course, believes this.w

Posted by: Douglas Oosting at December 21, 2008 04:03 PM (mNd5t)

10 "I can't see that being a fire-bender is really all that much different for a smith compared to anyone else using charcoal and/or coke. Sure, they can do it, but ... it doesn't strike me as all that big a deal."

Subbing for coal, charcoal, or coke is not small potatoes to a non-technical civilization.  It takes significant effort to produce even small quantities.  While I grant you that an Earthbender would make it easier to mine coal, you'd still need a supply to mine. 

The trick isn't in direct application of the powers; it's in their implications.  Would large siege engines ever be built, if someone can just wave a hand and fling rocks through the air?  Would anyone ever learn how to build iron bridges, if stone could be made to do amazing things? (would you need to?)   Growth of civil engineering might be unusually retarded, or head down different tracks. Imagine what a Waterbender and an Earthbender could do together in building a dam or other projects.  (from the one or two scenes I saw of this show on TV, I think they did do some crazy stuff)

Posted by: ubu at December 21, 2008 04:26 PM (hXBl2)

11 OTOH, one nice usage for firebending is industry, not to produce high hear for smelting and forging, per se, but to safely control said heat.  After all, a firebender has less to worry about from burns, and can precisely adjust the flame.

That said, Fire Nation industry seems less because of their bending, and more as an innovation to increase industrial capacity while simultaneously freeing up firebenders for military service. . .

Posted by: metaphysician at December 21, 2008 06:27 PM (h4nEy)


Me, I'm going to have to pick air bending. Not because I think it's the most fun, but because I think it would most match my own personal goals. I respect engineers greatly, and in the sort of world Avatar takes place, I would respect earth-benders for the same reason. But my own nature is one of gathering information, even information of little or no immediate value, rather than building things. I consider myself more a researcher than an engineer, and the intelligence advantage of being able to see everything from above would be more important to me than anything I could build with earth-bending powers.

Other benders could imitate flight, of course, but air-benders would be the most difficult to bar or deceive, especially since they can fly about without leaving the signs of their presence the other benders do (fire trails, precipitation, or columns of earth). The hardest thing to stop someone from learning is what you don't even know they're looking for, after all.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian at December 21, 2008 07:50 PM (4njWT)

13 I don't think it's a spoiler to state that the Earth Kingdom, as a whole, is by far the largest and most prosperous of the 4 nations, and while some of that is due to simple geography (look at their available landmass on the map in the opening), the sheer number of earthbenders and the engineering feats they can accomplish makes them very powerful in peacetime and not so bad at war.

While the Fire Nation wiped out the Air Nomads , locked the Northern Water Tribe in their capitol, and decimated the Southern Water Tribe over the years, fighting is still going steady a hundred years later over the various Earth Kingdoms (there are multiple independent kingdoms, as evidenced by Omashu, with the largest and most powerful by far being Ba Sing Se, which *does* make use of a lot of those engineering tricks with their abundance of earthbenders).  The Fire Nation started the war during the most united (governmentally) and prosperous period in their entire history, and yet they haven't been able to conquer more than scattered Earth kingdoms and villages.

Note also how many Season 1 eps take place in the Earth Kingdom, despite the fact that it is the Water season.

As for waterbending's weaknesses... it also has some strengths, but many of those are either rare gifts or involve learning Things Which Should Not Be Learned.  You'd be surprised where a true master can get water from, though...

As for which I'd take?  I'd say probably Fire or Earth.

Posted by: BigD at December 21, 2008 09:41 PM (LjWr8)

14 the sheer number of earthbenders and the engineering feats they can accomplish makes them very powerful in peacetime and not so bad at war.

I think, from what the series creators have said in interviews, that each nation has (or rather, had) a roughly equal number of benders, regardless of its size or population. The Earth Kingdom, with its huge population and land mass, had the lowest percentage of benders, where the Air Nomads (by far the smallest nation) had every single person a bender. They never really covered it in the series, though.

Posted by: EvilOtto at December 22, 2008 10:00 AM (X+4PK)

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