Sunday, 8 August 2010

Warren Fahy's "Fragment"

Predators resembling mantis shrimps, insect-like life forms whose wings are placed in a radial design, and covers of books that do not exist...

You might think that this is the Furaha site I am talking about, and indeed it could be. But the same characteristics also describe another speculative playing field, and that is "Henders Island".

'Fragment' is a novel
by Warren Fahy that came out last year. I have never discussed any of the large number of interesting life forms in written science fiction before; the reason is simply that I have a strong predilection for visual matters. 'Fragment' is accompanied by a website with quite a bit of visual material. Some of the images there are printed in the book as well.

I will not describe the story in any detail; if you like an adventure story along the lines of Crichton's 'Jurassic Park', you will like this book as well. The story begins with a camera crew stumbling upon an unexplored island. 'Unexplored' means except for a captain Henders a few centuries ago, who noted its existence. The island is the remnant of a former continent, where life went through its own evolutionary process regardless of mainstream evolution. You might think that that is what islands are for, in fact. The Galapagos islands, definitely a breeding ground for somewhat original shapes, are 5-10 million years old, and Madagascar, the home of lemurs and some of the oddest trees in existence, has been isolated for some 100 million years (or so Wikipedia says). It makes sense to think that longer isolation allows further separation between island and mainland life forms, giving rise to the dictum that 'weirdness waxes with time'. Well, Henders Island has been isolated since the Precambrian...


Click to enlarge; copyright Warren Fahy and Company

The resulting life forms cannot even be categorised in modern terms. Above is a Henders rat attacking a poor mongoose, let loose by scientists to see how well 'normal' animals fare against Henderian ones (the Henderian ones kill them in minutes). This 'rat' has a ringlike internal skeleton that seems to have developed from a crustacean (?) exoskeleton. They have fur, give birth to live young, have blue blood, have interesting eyes (mantis shrimps again), a second brain with its own eyes on its back. One of their 9 limbs is really a tail; the first two pairs of limbs are adapted to catch prey ('hypercentaurism').

Click to enlarge; copyright Warren Fahy and Company

This is a Henders wasp, one of the radially symmetrical flying life forms. It seems to have five wings, which means it will not be easy to develop a wing 'gait' that does not produce a wobble in flight. The wings stick out but do not seem to move to and fro as frantically as you might expect. They are quite a bit like my tetropters; that's convergent speculation, all over again. Previous posts on tetropters started here and continued here, here and here. (By the way, I have solved the major hurdles of producing smooth tetropter flight animations, but there is still quite a bit to do.)
Click to enlarge; copyright Warren Fahy and Company

Life on Henders Island is so extremely aggressive and efficacious in eating anything anywhere anytime that the rest of the Earth had better watch out. Step on land and you will be stung, bitten into or simply turned into shish kebab in a few minutes. You cannot even trust the 'plants'! Interestingly, the book contains discussions between the protagonists whether or not an ecosystem can flourish without any clear distinction between herbivores and carnivores. I suppose I am one of the doubters: if anything that can be eaten will be eaten in a matter of minutes, you wonder how anything can live long enough to grow large. And there are large animals; above is a spigre with a human for scale. Large animals may be fairly immune to attacks from animals half their size, but they are not so to insect-sized or smaller animals.

Click to enlarge; copyright Warren Fahy and Company

Small Henderian animals are certainly dangerous; above is a disk ant, a radially symmetrical animal, like a spidrid, but much nastier. Disk ants carry their own young that carry their own young etc, so there is a cascade of nastiness. The book describes how they bore their way into flesh and open a leg to the bone in a matter of seconds; a bit too quick, I thought: movement takes time, certainly on a miniature scale. But what keeps them from devouring a spigre? I do like the disk ant's movement: it can walk as any decent radial animal should, but can switch to rolling on one side. Likely? Probably not. Fun? Definitely!

Reading the book gave me a distinct feeling that the author had a film in mind, and indeed Mr Fahy wrote me that a film is 'definitely now in the works'. I suppose that that is why so much visual material has been developed. Because I like to credit the artists where possible, I asked him for their names, and here they are: Daren Bader, Steven Olds, Ron Lemon and Michael Limber.

I guess we now wait for the sequel and for the film. I do hope that the movie makers will pay more attention to how animals move than the designers of Avatar did. If you read 'Fragment', it is clear that the author likes his creations and thought a lot about their biology; that's a very good starting point.

25 comments:

tentaculus said...

I must say that the designs are very incredible. There aren't much sci-fi writers who had bothered to put lots of explanations of biomechanics and illustrations to his piece of literature.

much thanks for sharing :)

Evan Black said...

Fascinating stuff! I know what book I'll be reading next!

j. w. bjerk said...

Not as plausible as i could wish, but certainly much more detailed and interesting than the average monster-book fare.

Like many fictional predators they seem to suffer from hyper-predator-itis, i.e. being impossibly and irrationally deadly. This probably increases the excitement of the story, so it is at least understandable.

Generally speaking isolated small island of populations tend to produce smaller less competitive creatures. I wouldn't expect a single island that size to be able to support a single land-based predator the size of the spiger, let along a viable population of them.

I also have doubts about the suitability of an exoskeleton for land creatures that size, but who knows?


"The Legacy of Heorot" by Niven etc., is my gold star example of a plausible super-deadly alien novel, for those that like this subgenre. But i might give this a read if i can get it from my library system.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

J.W.: If I gave the impression that the animals have an exoskeleton, that was wrong. There is a scene of a dissection in the book. On finding an internal ring or cylinder-like hard structure the protagonists discuss it as resembling part of the exoskeleton of a crustacean.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm...maybe it would be impossible for a creature with an exoskeleton made of chitin to get this large, but surely there are biological materials much stronger that could support a giant exoskeletal creature? Many giant trees, for example, are completely hollow, and seem to stand up just fine.

Josh said...

I thought the book sounded really interesting but found the writing style really unbearable and only made it a couple of chapters in and gave up, It's a shame because the premise was tantilizing.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Anonymous: Mind you, the animals described in Mr Fahy's book actually have endoskeletons, not exoskeletons. But the question remains whether you can have large animals with exoskeletons. Strength may not be the issue, provided you talk about the strength needed to withstand compression and buckling. Cylinders are quite useful for that. However, the strength to withstand a direct hit or fall would pose a problem, as the forces would not be buffered by any tissues: such impacts might fracture the skeleton. Another possible issue is how much an exoskeleton needs to increase with body mass: if it has to increase much more than an endoskeleton, that would spell trouble. There is not enough overlap in size between Earth vertebrates and invertebrates to be certain.

Josh: perhaps you should just pick out the bits on biology then...

Anonymous said...

Well, sure an exoskeletal animal is more brittle than an endoskeletal one, but is it really more likely to be injured by a heavy blow or fall? Turtles after all are surrounded by heavy shells, not bubble rap, because a solid shell is resistant to both concussive blows and sharp teeth, also it is made of dead tissue that can be scratched or cracked without seriously injuring the animal. As for the scaling problem, I read recently about a giant myriopod from the Carboniferous that could grow to 8 feet long called Arthropleura. It seems the main reason these arthropods no longer exist is that there isn't enough oxygen in the air to support them, and it isn't difficult to imagine an exoskeletal alien with an efficient set of lungs growing very large.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Anonymous:

An exoskeleton is indeed more likely to be injured by an impact. I will provide a link at the end of this post to a book on animal scaling discussing exactly that subject. The energy given to the exoskeleton increases with the square of the velocity. Think of the mantis shrimp in the post following this one: the movement is optimised for speed...

Turtles/tortoises are very interesting: they do not move fast themselves, which eliminates that source of high-velocity impacts. There are no terrestrial predator with clubs (on Earth; on Furaha tortoises would go extinct very quickly).

Moreover, there is evidence that exoskeletons increase more with mass than endoskeletons.

Is there a way out? Well, Furahan hexapods descended from animals with plate-like dermal skeletons, resembling exoskeletons in some aspects. During evolution parts dwindled in thickness, others developed ridges, struts and even curved in on themselves to become cylindrical. There is no need to envisage a large animals as just a scaled-up lobster with all the attending problems; there is room for creativity.

http://books.google.nl/books?id=8WkjD3L_avQC&pg=PA53&lpg=PA53&dq=currey+1967+exoskeleton+endoskeleton&source=bl&ots=oQmaapqPUJ&sig=HYAeX0jttoldzSEIKDpJyXb7nv4&hl=nl&ei=8PlzTN7iL6KUOMrXvO4I&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=currey%201967%20exoskeleton%20endoskeleton&f=false

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great rebuttal, and for explaining in more detail an aspect of Furahan biology. I just have one question: what of Arthropleura? it was an 8 foot millipede from the carboniferous, and scientists looking at its fossilized trackways say that it moved "quickly" over the ground. How did it overcome the problems you've just mentioned?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hello Anonymous,

None of the things I mentioned make it impossible for an animal with an exoskeleton to become big. But the animal in question would be less 'fit' than a comparable beast with an endoskeleton: it carries relatively more skeletal mass and is vulnerable to high-velocity impacts.

Back to the carboniferous: I can think of two themes. Firstly, the millipede's speed is unlikely to have been really fast (longer story), so there is little chance of high-velocity impacts due to speed. The low-slung body and many feet protect against falls anyway. I do not think there were predators with clubs around, so no problem there either. In short, there was no serious competition yet!
The second issue is that high atmospheric oxygen content may have allowed diffusion to reach inner body parts, together with a very flat body.
Both factors worked in its favour; either factor on its won would have done away with them, let alone both together, explaining why the large exobeast niche has been empty ever since.
But go back to this period, give them a better respiratory system and perhaps they would have managed to evolve their skeleton...

Anonymous said...

Thank you. :)

Evan Black said...

Well, I just finished the book. It's exciting, and really makes you think outside the box. It certainly does suffer from "hyper-predator-itis" as j.w. bjerk said, but it maintains a pretty robust internal logic. I would suggest it to anyone interested in speculative biology, or anyone who likes to see monsters mutilate humans. ;)

Anonymous said...

I might have liked it if these creatures where in any way like real animals.

But of course they are just generic, freaky, ridiculously vicious, bug-like, hollywood supermonsters that can kick every normal lifeforms ass. And that are so much better then normal animals, because they have extra brains and limbs and stuff.

I mean... what are these? predator-sue's?


Because these hollywood predators ARE mary sue like. Like when James Cameron talks about how his panthery thingy can kick a t-rex ass I just want to bitchslap him.

Mary sue's are not cool, and they aren't cool in alien predator version either.


So yeah.. these things get a nay from me. The mongoose should have beaten them.

StevenH said...

Just having finished the book last week, I will chime in.

Remember that Henders Island is what is left of a larger fragment of a continent, whittled away over time. The creatures there have been evolving for eons. The arms race continued, and the primary defense seemed to be speed, as the armor didn't seem to have much survival value (likely because as these things got larger, exoskeletons got more expensive metabolically), So the critters got a bit bigger, a bit faster, and kept adding to their arsenal. Couple this with the constant lessening of the space they have to roam around in, and anything that isn't able to hold it's own is rendered extinct (and thus, no "benign" fauna).

That's probably not a very good (or properly scientific) explanation, but it rationalizes the Mary Sue predators well enough for me. With such a truncated ecosystem, defenses have to be pretty good, and there doesn't seem to really be any decent defense against these guys except more firepower (although the spigers seemed to have a symbiotic/parasitic relationship with some of the insect analogues, although it is only mentioned in passing and the book didn't go into why more critters didn't go this route).

One thing that I have a question on is the image of the disk ant/plant-analogue life cycle. It wasn't mentioned in the book and it implies that the plant-analogues are related to the disk ants.

Overall, I liked the novel; it was a fun read. Makes me very glad that disk ants don't exist, as I found them to be the most "dangerous/insidious/creepy" critters in the book. The other ones are a bit more "controllable", if larger.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hi Steven,

It's good to hear from you again! The armour vs. speed argument is a good one, although I would personally guess that there is a metabolic limit to how far you can take prolonged hyperactivity. for every organism energy is a limiting factor, but compared to conventional organisms, Hender ones seem to be in the luxury position of having very large supplies at their disposal.

As for the plant-to-ant connection, I think I remember allusions to that in the book, but I had read the website beforehand, so perhaps I misread that. I will try to find out...

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hi Steven,

Mr Fahy was kind enough to answer my questions. Here is his response as an excerpt from an email; the first sentence is about the responses of people like yourself on this blog:

"Particularly cool is having my ideas hashed over by like-minded souls I never otherwise would have had the chance to be criticized by or complimented by.

So, in that spirit, and in answer to your question, yes, it is suggested in the book that the trees might be related to... the disk-ants! (see here:
http://www.warrenfahy.com/page_gallery_antplants.html)

That shall be elaborated on in the sequel... And for the record, only the Henders "clover" photosynthesizes, and only during the day. The rest of the time it dissolves rock. But this qualifies it, at least, and only partially, as a plant."

StevenH said...

There are possibly some spoilers in the text below (although I tried to stay pretty vague):


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I kind of figured that the sequel might involve the disk ants, based on the minimovie on his website. Since there aren't too many ways for Henders Island critters to get off the island, only the smallest of beasties would be able to pull it off, and that would be by hitching a ride on something else that was able/permitted to leave the island. The disk ants seem the most able to do that, as the tiniest of them would be almost unnoticeable.

There is a note on the disk ant page at the back of the book that mentions (from Henders's perspective) that the disk ants were the most dangerous critters. I thought that might have been some foreshadowing.

So, if the disk ants get off the island, presumably they will get into some other biome. The implication then is that the Henders Island "trees" (dart palm, snap blossom, and tube trap) will follow and make kudzu look like a slow growing ornamental plant. Since these things aren't plants and are more like sessile animals, they were probably prey for the animals as well (which would explain their rather active defenses). I can't remember if that was the case, or if they were just competing with the "clover". I would imagine that since a "sprout" would be vulnerable, I think that they might have either a short infant stage with high growth rates, or they are tended by a mobile life form (although the logical animal to do this is the disk ant, there doesn't seem to be any indication that this might be the case).

But there might be two kinds of disk ant; one that the human explorers met (the "warrior/food gatherer") and a second which they never got the chance to find (a "caregiver" that tends to "sprouts" and "saplings"). But this is pure speculation pulled out of a hat. Since the disk ants are really ants at all, there is only so far you can take the analogy.

I am looking forward to the sequel. In addition to the "what happens next" bits, I am also interested in the "first contact" scenario and the political/sociological/psychological fallout of our new "guests" joining our human community.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hi Steven,

Very logical, as Mr Spock might say. Disk-ants indeed seem the likeliest to escape unnoticed.

You had mentioned that the spigers had a symbiotic relationship with the spigers. Well, I had been worried that disk-ants might simply eat anything including spigres, and Mr Fahy replied as follows:

"The spigers are shown to be riddled with parasites that protect them from attack by disk-ants. They abandon their host only after a fatal injury of some kind has occurred, mostly from other spigers, as will be elaborated in the sequel. You have permission to divulge that, by the way."

This suggests that there are spigers in the sequel, so apparently they can 'regenerate' as well. The intelligent species must have carried their own load of commensales etc. as well, so there is another possible way to export Henderian life forms.

mithril said...

apparently the sequal involves the two "main" caracters investigating another long-isolated ecosystem, this time underground. ( http://www.warrenfahy.com/page_book_pandemonium.html )

there were several openings i could see for explorations of the hender's island ecosystem though. as mentoned above, "dustmite" disk ants might have snuck out on clothing or in boxes easily enough. and the existance of "mother plants" which raise frigate bird chicks as a form of renewable food could easily be using said birds to spread their larval stages to other islands/locations. and most obvious to me was the fact that if that island was a peice of an ancient sub-continent, why aren't there more peices in the area? henders island would have been a mountaintop or plataeu of the continent. but it's hard to imagine that other mountaintops didn't exist nearby. depending on how long those other islands have been isolated from hender's ilsand, the ecosystem could have related species on them.

mithril said...

"I would imagine that since a "sprout" would be vulnerable, I think that they might have either a short infant stage with high growth rates, or they are tended by a mobile life form (although the logical animal to do this is the disk ant, there doesn't seem to be any indication that this might be the case)."

i think the fact the mobile disk ant carries around a colony of progressively smaller versions of itself would provide some of the protection needed. a mature disk ant that takes root would presumably still have it's colony of smaller copies on it. these smaller copies might hang around the parant 'tree' long after it's grown.


in regards to "hyper predation", keep in mind that the only human observation of the ecosystem has been either by observing "bait" placed to attract animals, or from the inside of a massive Rover or humvee that just crashed through the henderian jungle. any large crature or object smashing through an ecosystem is going to spook smaller cratures..and observation of real world ecosystems show that alot of predators like to shadow big creatures crashing through the undergrowth so they can feed on the stuff spooked by it.
we never really see the henderian ecosystem when big rovers weren't disturbing things, or fairly soft, slow, ungainly, and unprotected humans aren't running around. odds are that camoflauge (optical, aural, and chemical) was just as developed as their predatory abilities, and alot of the 'animal' life employed a form of "biological countermeasure (BCM) warfare" where their camoflauge 'spoofs' the senses of the other creatures so they don't have to be moving full tilt 24/7.

it is clear however that the ecosystem is an extremely active one, and even with "BCM" full active, they're not ever really safe.

rseabrease said...

I have just finished reading "Fragment" and all I can say is EXTRAORDINARY! Outstanding biological explanations and the biological illustration were incredible. How I wish that Mr. Fahy would continue this writing in an ongoing series and would include even more illustrations. Absolutely a first-rate book. In fact, I think he should create a whole world of such creatures!
Richard Seabrease

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hello Seabrease,

I had not expected someone to comment on a post that is almost one year old. It is good that you like the book, and Warren will no doubt like it too. You should know that he has written another book along similar lines. It is only available as an ebook though, but you will find it on his website.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, is it possible to have an ecosystem with only carnivores and scavengers?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

o you mean with predators eating scavengers and scavernegrs eating predators'cadavers? If so, that is not posible, as energy gets lost.