Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Back from Loncon3

'Loncon3', in case any readers missed my earlier post on the subject, is the name of the World Science Fiction convention that ended yesterday. Over 10,000 people bought tickets for one or more days, with over 6000 people attending at one day (Saturday, no doubt). I had only visited one 'WorldCon' before, in 1995 in Glasgow, but the atmosphere was as friendly as I remembered. I met Australian SF writers, painters, mathematicians, experts on mediaeval textiles and IT consultants making their own Star Trek episodes (Hi Anna!), just to give you an idea. My estimate is that the three sessions drew some 450 people, not bad for a convention with some 15 parallel sessions going on, apart from a well-equipped bar and many stalls with books and other items. The response was good, but it was also obvious that the science fiction crowd as a whole had hardly come into contact with speculative biology as a field: several people remarked that it was the first time that had heard the phrase. There is work to be done!    

There were three sessions devoted to speculative biology with five speakers. Darren Naish has already posted about the sessions on his Tetrapod Zoology blog, so I will be short here; for an account of the sessions and images of the speakers, visit his blog. It was very good to finally meet them in person; my contacts with Dougal Dixon go back to 1982, believe it or not, and with Memo to the early nineties, and still I had never seen one of them in person. We had to juggle a bit to make all five speakers fit in the first session, in part because we only learnt there and then that we had 15 minutes less than we thought, to clear the room for the next panel.


Click to enlarge; copyright Lewis Dartnell
Lewis Dartnell provided an enthusiastic introduction about astrobiology. He stressed the importance of plant life, something often glossed over in speculative biology: people go for animals only, forgetting the basis of the ecology. After a question from the audience he made a strong argument for the absence of other intelligent life in the universe. This idea is based on the 'Fermi paradox'. In short, this holds that there has been easily enough time for alien intelligences to seed the universe with civilisations, and we see and hear no sign of them: where are they? (here is a good website explaining the Fermi paradox). Perhaps there are 'filters' weeding out the evolution of technically capable lifeforms such as ourselves. It is possible that humanity has already passed the 'great filter' without realising it, which would mean the universe is now wide open to us. But if it is still ahead of us, somewhere in the future things will go very wrong indeed.

Slide by Darren to show part if the 'SpecBio' timeline; click to enlarge
Darren Naish then give a thorough review of the history of Speculative Biology (Zoology really) with many examples. He made an interesting comparison between, on the one hand, projects such as Furaha, Greenworld and Snaiad, and on the other hand speculation about 'missing links'. The first type might follow scientific rules but is essentially a fantasy, while the second concerns animals that must have existed in some form on Earth but whose details we do not know. Examples are protobirds, prototurtles etc. Darren argued that the two types of speculation are distinct and I agree: we are certain that animals of the second type once existed and are equally certain that those of the first type do not. I am not saying that there can be no complex life out there, but it won't be Furaha or Snaiad specifically.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
Memo Kösemen showed, for the first time in public, images of how Snaiad came about (and no, I am not about to show any of these, so what you do get is a known image). He first sketched something and later retro-engineered the biology to explain the sketch. That is very familiar to me: many Furahan clades started in the same way: you find yourself doodling, and somehow a shape emerges on paper almost of its own accord. Only then does the logical part of the mind kick in and starts wondering 'what if...'. This is for instance how tetropters came about.

Anyway, Memo argued that the success of Snaiad was to a large extent due to his project being open to the public: as long as people followed the rules for a given clade, they could suggest animals of their own, and if Memo liked them enough those animals became part of the official Snaiadi canon. In that his procedure contrasts with the Furaha one; I never opened Furaha to such outside influences because I have so little time available for the project as it is, and would never have the time even to consider all suggestions with the attention they deserved. Of course, Memo now has an enormous number of species waiting to be drawn or painted...

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk
As for Furaha, I showed some new animations as well as paintings never shown in public before. The ones above are landscapes in Vue, made to illustrate the point that planets are large and will have many biotopes: I never liked the idea of a 'desert planet' or a 'jungle planet'.  The animations, of cloakfish and tetropters in particular, will be shown here in due course.

Dougal showing a -rare!- manuscript of Greenworld and the Japanese published version; click to enlarge

Dougal Dixon discussed Greenworld, a project that is still waiting to be published in English (for a review of the Japanese version, see here and here). Both Furaha and Snaiad have humans on them, but the story is not primarily about them. In the Furaha they were introduced to provide human interest, in that the citizen-scientists of The Institute work together and quite often against one another to study life of on Furaha. The trick is to keep their number low though. The Greenworld story is to a much larger extent about the influence of humanity on a pristine world. Having lost much technical know-how, humans on Greenworld first live more or less together with the wildlife, but then their impact changes gradually, to resemble the one we are all familiar with, right here on Earth. No world seems big enough to house humanity as well as wildlife, neither the fictional Greenworld nor the real Earth. We do not now how these particular stories will end. Perhaps there is a link here with the 'great filter' of the Fermi paradox, that might be waiting for us in the future. Let's hope not.     

13 comments:

Nicky said...

Man, i should had gone there when I had the chance. I bet they also had like cool animatronics of the creatures there, too. even some plushies and action figures. Why do I feel that the Speculative biology/evolution fandom is not getting enough love and respect it earns?

Andrew Broeker said...

Is there video of the LonCon speculative biology talk?

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Nicky: No, I saw no animatronics. Animations, yes, but no animatronics, plushies or action figures themed on speculative biology. Dougal brought some impressive models though.

Andrew: Memo placed a video camera on the table, but I do not know how much he did or did not record. He put a video of his own talk on the speculative evolution forum though: http://s1.zetaboards.com/Conceptual_Evolution/topic/5540790/1/#new

John Bray said...

Great to see you again Gert. I tracked down the loose bound book you gave me 20 years ago, and its called "Alpha Phonenicis IV", and I notice you now have "Nu Phoenicis IV". Is this a reboot of the project, as there don't seem many creatures in common?

I hope the surge in interest in speculative biology can be sustained.

John

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hello John! I had not thought that any of those old versions would still be about...

In fact, not that many organisms were permanently deleted, but the ones I showed at Loncon3 were generally newer ones. The project has not underwent a revolution, but it is evolving.

I originally (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) placed the planet around the start Alpha Phoenicis, which had a nice alliteration to it: 'Furaha, Alpha Phoenicis Four'). This was based on one book source, before the internet; it later turned out that my information was incorrect. Martyn Fogg helped me search a new home and designed the solar system (he was doing a PhD on solar systems at the time).

As for a surge in interest, 'SpecBio' has its own crowd, but I have now noticed that the SF community is unaware of Speculative Biology. I intend to see what can be done.

Nicky said...

The models sound cool, Still I find it rather sad that the speculative biology/evolution fandom is NOT getting the love and appreciation it receives these days. The 1890s to 1900s must have been the heyday of its time, until people just lost interest in it all for sports and other stupid endeavors.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Nicky: which projects in the 1890-1900 era are you referring to?

Nicky said...

Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom+Pellucidar+other works, Rhinogrades by Stumpke, Flight of Dragons by Dickinson, Dixon's after man and new dinosaurs, barlowe's Darwin IV. I know that nat geo released a program about two alien planets in "Extraterrestrial", and there is Koseman's Snaiad, evan black's nereus, your furaha, Alex Reis brinnin, and a whole lotta others like them, but i feel as though the entire Speculative-bio-evolve fandom is being oversdhadowed these days. If only a miracle was to happen. a toyline, a feature length movie, comics, i'd sell my own backbone for any of those to happen in the near future. sorry for my long speech.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Aha, now I understand better. You may have made a typo while describing the period: Burroughs did in 1950, the Rhinogradentia were first published in 1962 or thereabouts, and the rest of us are still alive.
Mind you, you couls also say that Speculative biology enjoys more interest than ever before; it's just that there are very few published books on the subject. Let's hope some publishers will see the light...

SingYu Lam said...

Just read through this, it sounds amazing! I wish I could have gone just to see everything.

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

SingYu Lam: Perhaps there will be another occasion some day.

Petr said...

well i can say sec evo is very active on deviantart at least! so much stuff, you would be surprised!

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Hi Petr,

I glance around DeviantArt every now and again. In fact, I have had my eye on a few projects there, and will ask the creators whether they would consent to me discussing their projects on my blog. Starting January, probably...