Sunday, 26 April 2009

Epona II

I discussed the Epona project in this blog recently, and stated that it was at its time the biggest and best-developed world of fictional biology. Here is a surprise; it might very well still be the biggest such project! The problem is that most of it was only visible to the few people taking care of the project, among whom Greg Barr was one the people holding it all together. The website never showed more than the beginning of he project, and did not even discuss the major life forms and their physiology. The good news is that part of the old website has now been restored (it was damaged by a virus or a hacker). So take a look there, and let's hope that more of the wealth of Epona data will yet appear for all to see.

Meanwhile, I can discuss a few glimpses. There is a Kingdom Myoskeleta. These organisms do not have a sketelon, neither on the inside nor on the outside. What they have is a set of extensile muscles without joints. That is right, extensile muscles, not contractile ones. There were no bones, hence no joints. By expanding on a specific site in a thick muscle rod, the rod could bend, stretch or spiral in any shape desired. This was no mean feat; the limbs of any creature with such extensile muscles acted a bit like tentacles. I remember writing a critique on these muscles along the same lines as later reappeared in this blog: there were four blog entries called 'Why there is no walking with tentacles': one, two, three and four. If you read them, you will find that I made a case for the development of joints in any limb destined for serious weight bearing. I think that the arguments hold for tentacles of any type, with contractile or extensile muscles. By the way, I thought that extensile muscles could perhaps be made to work in a roundabout manner, but that is perhaps something for another day.

The myoskelata basically consist of a barrel with a set of limbs at either end. There are five of these limbs, and in principle they branch into three 'fingers'. Here is such a basic organism:

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The Myoskeleta are divided into two phyla: the Myophyta, plants for all practical purposes (the other phylum is the Pentapoda; they're animals). Take the basic shape, drop one end into the ground to act as roots, and span a membrane between the five limbs: that is a basic Pagoda Tree. If you add a similar layer ('tier') on top of it, you understand the tiered appearance of a pagoda forest. You will be able to recognise this fivefold symmetry for most of the plants shown on the cover of the recent book on how to grow Eponan plants (see the Hades Publishing page on the Furaha website).

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In principle these 'trees' can still move a bit, for instance to direct their leaves towards the sun. Intriguing, aren't they? I will add a few images of such Eponan forests. They are in development together with Steven Hanly.

Ah yes, I showed an image of a flying animal in the previous post. It was modeled by Steven, and is a pentapod, meaning its basic anatomy is similar to that of the trees it flies over. The species is a Uther, and it is intelligent. Life on Epona has developed intelligence, unlike Furaha (and the reason why there are no 'sophonts' on Furaha deserves mention on its own, one day).

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A stream in the forest.

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Somewhere else along the same stream.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

One year on

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I started this blog on April 22, 2008, or almost a year ago. Has it been a success? Hard to tell, really. How do you judge the success of a blog? by the number of readers? In that case I should probably write about religion, politics and sex, preferably in combination. That suggests it might be more to the point to ask how you judge success of a blog devoted to speculative biology from the viewpoint of one person's particular take on the subject? You can't; suffice it to say that so far I like the number of visitors, which is growing, and like writing entries.

There were 39 entries in one year, not counting this one. Not exactly once a week, but not bad, I think. On May 19 last year I made a list of things I needed to learn in order to produce a good book on Furaha. Here they are again, with some comments:

* Photoshop: I use it regularly now, and am getting better, but still haven't really used it to paint.
* Blender: Nothing yet...
* Indesign: Yes! I am getting the hang of it.
* More species: Yes, but nothing detailed
* Cladograms: No, and at present they do not strike me as very useful.
* Textures: Yes! The astronomy page is proof of that.

And of course there are some things I did not foresee one year ago:
* Interesting contacts with several people, not just in the comments, but behind the scenes as well.
* Working on the blog takes away time from working on Furaha; hmmm...

To finish off and to celebrate, I will throw in a few images. The image at the top of this post was made as an experiment for a forum heavy on map making. Just for fun.
And some more:

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This is an Uther, a sophont from Epona. There's something in the wind about Epona...

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Surely you did not think I had forgotten the Interplanetary Zoo by Edd Cartier? The store of brilliant images hasn't dried up yet.

Monday, 13 April 2009

South of Brussels; again...

With spring and all that, there is the garden to consider, so real biology took precedence over speculative biology this Easter weekend. Then again, New Hades Publishers just announced two new books on the Furaha website (one on Epona and one on Snaiad), so don't complain!


Anyway, what I can do is to direct you once more to our French friends: stirred perhaps in part by the attention given to their work Marc Boulay has been working on a gallery of their future animals. Just go to his site, click on the image of the penguin-like head saying 'Creatief met Darwin' (now where did I see that picture before?) and you will have found it.

Do not worry about the French on the next page. There are four oval links at the top right. Clicking on two of the ones starting with 'ecosystème' should make you happy (the third should make you patient).

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Here is an appetizer: an Arthrodon, a shark with some interesting characteristics: the row of fins looks like an atavism, but the 'moustache' is a new development: they are electric and are used to stun prey by electrocution.

I really will have to ask them one day how they obtain these nice effects on their sites. Very neat.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Epona I

Over the last few weeks I have asked for other projects dealing with fictional biology. One project wasn't mentioned much, possibly because most readers interested in this kind of thing know of it already, and assumed others did as well. I am talking about the 'Epona project'. At the time, and this is about 1994, it was without a doubt the largest project of its kind, involving the most people. That may no longer be the case, but what many people may not know is that the little that can be found on the Internet only hints at the enormous amount of material accumulated. It did receive its share of the limelight: for instance, there was a session at a World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow (1994 if I remember correctly), and it made the cover of Analog in November 1996, with a story set in the Epona universe as well as an essay of the scientific backgrounds, by Wolf Read). At present the Epona project seems to be fading out of the public eye, which is a pity.

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Cover of Analog, November 1996.
The animal flying in the foreground is an uther, Epona's sophont.

The project started from a 'Contact Conference', in which one group of people had to come up with alien intelligence, building up the attitude of the aliens from their biological background. Another group played the role of human explorers, and then there is contact. Read more about the Contact conferences here; you will also find some information regarding Epona there.

It grew from there. What made it unique was that it started with a planetary system, devised by Martyn Fogg (who later was kind enough to design Furaha's solar system about one year ago, as an aside for his PhD studies on solar system formation). The planet's geology came next, and the biology built directly on that. I will not mention all names of the 31 people formally involved in the project. You can find their names and much more on the website of the Epona Project. The site looks its age, but is still quite interesting. The thing is that life on land on Epona is only 10 million years old. Oddly, Epona is an old planet, and life there has existed for far longer than it has on Earth. So why hasn't life colonised the land before? Well, it has, and not just once but many times. It died out as many times afterwards.

The reason for this curious phenomenon, which I think is brilliant, is that the planet's system of continental drift has come to a virtual standstill: the planet is losing heat due to old age, and the crust is solidifying. The lack of continuous volcanism ensures that CO2 levels gradually drop, causing the roof of the greenhouse to be opened, so to speak. It gets colder and colder, and life on land is impoverished until it gets to the dead or boring stages.

But every once in a while, say 100 million years, the crust convulses in a gargantuan volcanic shudder, spewing out enormous amounts of CO2. That creates an instant greenhouse effect: the glaciers retreat to the poles, and life crawls onto the beach once more. That is the setting of Epona at present. The last 10 million years have seen an outburst of adaptive radiation of life on land, filling it with an array of forms that at times look maladaptive and at other times look very fit indeed.

It is a pity that the website doesn't show you much of the wildlife that was devised there. Luckily, more can be found on the site of Steven Hanly, who, along with Wolf Read, did many illustrations. I will show a few here, with his permission (there are more on his site!). Looking at them now make you realise the enormous strides computer graphics has made in the last 15 years. The images on Steven's site date from that period, and were among the best that a nonprofessional could then hope to achieve.

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First, here is the image on Analog's cover, but larger and uncluttered

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Next, a single pagoda tree. Note that is has a fairly simple build. Life hasn't evolved anything like wood yet, so the stems are herbaceous in nature.

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A view of a landscape, with more pagoda's.

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A beautiful sunset view

So that's Epona. I do have more material on Epona's lifeforms, and will perhaps show some of it here later. But not everything about Epona is in the past. Together with Steven Hanly I have been trying to see whether we could produce some new images of Epona. Here is a test render done in Vue Infinite. It doesn't show many different species yet, but it is a beginning...

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Test render of some 2009 pagoda trees