Wednesday 24 February 2010

Léo's worlds: Aldebaran, Betelgeuse and Antares

Aldebaran, Betelgeuse and Antares are stars, obviously. But those of you who read 'bandes dessinées' (comics in French) may well associate these names with three series of books of the same names. The books are published by Dargaud, and the three series have their own website there. There are five volumes in Aldebaran and Betelgeuse, and the third volume of Antares has just been published, so there are some 600 pages to read so far. For once, speakers of English have not been forgotten; the UK publisher Cinebook is busy translating them into English. The series are all the work of one man, who appears on the cover simply as 'Léo'. His full name is Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira, and he is a Brazilian who works and lives in Paris. There are several interviews available in the form of written texts as well as videos, but all are in French, it seems. At first glance the drawings might seem a bit stiff and the characters a bit wooden, but the whole works quite well, and the series are quite popular. I am one of the readers who was drawn into the story, and am curious how it will one day end. The three series describe human colonization effects on worlds circling the aforementioned stars, but 'space opera' does not do them justice. There are certainly spaceships, and part of the story takes part in space, but the emphasis is on a group of people who travel these worlds and who meet one another in varying combinations. There are several layers to the story: one recurrent theme is the mysterious entity that affects human lives on all three worlds. Another theme, a very strong one, focuses on human matters: there are dictatorial governments who ensure that female prisoners produce babies to make them contribute to society, and there is stifling religious intolerance. But the emphasis lies on the friendship ties within the band friends who work together; not surprisingly, they have rather more enlightened views of how people should behave. This being a French bande dessinée, the author and the protagonists take love and sex in their stride. This must have proved too shocking for the English publisher or audience, as nude female breasts were redrawn, so that version sports rather more underwear than offensive naughty bits. If that interests you, read more here. But this blog is not about cultural attitudes towards human anatomy. There are lots of intriguing animals and plants on all three planets. They tend to be a bit on the rotund side, and generally they do not depart very far from Earth expectations. But they are still very nice to look at. Below there are some examples, scanned from the Dutch version.
Click to enlarge; copyright Dargaud
Here is part of a page of the Aldebaran series, showing some interesting swimming animals. Someone made a nice 3D animation of them, which can be found on YouTube, but I could not resist showing it here as well.
Click to enlarge; copyright Dargaud
This scene shows a young girl making use of a passing large centipede-like animal to hitch a ride. It carries its young on its back, where they are protected against the sun by the animal's tail. You do not see many centipede-like alien animals (of course, rusps abound on Furaha: just go to the land page of Note that the legs have a slight phase difference, and seem to be on the ground longer than they are in the air, just as you would expect for a very large animal.
Click to enlarge; copyright Dargaud
The animals usually have quite different body plans, so you can encounter tetrapods as well as hexapods on one planet. In fact, their designs do not seem to point to any systematic differences in body plan between the three planets. While I like the animals, I think they sometimes look a bit too artificial, perhaps? I will try to explain my meaning. Have a look at the two images above. An innocent tetrapod ambles towards a stream and is pierced by an ambush predator. The prong on the back of the predator is folded between two 'posts' when not in use.
Click to enlarge; copyright Dargaud
These antelope-analogues ('antelogues'?) have one head to look around with and one to eat with. Now that is something you do not see on many worlds; but you do see it a lot on one world, and that is Nemo Ramjet's Snaiad. Convergent speculation, once again?
Click to enlarge; copyright Dargaud
Finally, the cover of the newest album. These animals too look odd, but alien animals should look odd, I guess. Whether their arms work well, placed where they are, is anyone's guess. But I still like them and wonder what part they play in the story. I find myself much more forgiving of a lack of plausibility than with Avatar, and do not really know why; perhaps it is because these books seem less presumptuous. It does not really matter; both are enjoyable.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Avatar's 'Walking with hexapods' or 'Don't walk this way'

I guess everyone will have seen Avatar by now. If you haven't, and if you like speculative biology, go out and see it now. You can read this post before you go, as it will not spoil the storyline. The film is an amazing spectacle. I loved it, and was fascinated by the computer generated graphics. There is a short 'featurette' in the form of a short documentary on the internet that you should all watch, because it explains some of the basic tenets of the film. Here it is, but remember that there is a much better version on YouTube.

Before Avatar appeared in cinemas, there was this rumour going around that it would be solidly grounded in biology. For a film with floating mountains in it, coherent biology may not be the first thing you would expect. Still, let's look a bit closer at that claim, and start with the natives. As narrated in the 'featurette', the Na'vi (the natives) look very human and have four limbs while all large animals have six. The reason for this apparently has nothing to do with biology and everything with economics. The director, James Cameron, made that quite clear in an interview with Playboy magazine:

Playboy: How much did you get into calibrating your movie heroine’s hotness?
Cameron: Right from the beginning I said, “She’s got to have tits,” even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.

So biology did not have to make sense, and in Hollywood facts and fiction do not seem to be regarded as fundamentally different, as they are in science. Oh well, perhaps we should just embrace the natives (the hero does) because there would otherwise not have been any film at all. So let's hope the rest of the Pandoran biosphere is more plausible. The first job at hand has to be how to squeeze four-limbed humanoids into a evolutionary tree in which every big terrestrial animal has six limbs; hm.

Prolemuris from 'featurette'; click to enlarge

The book 'Avatar, an activist survival guide' presents some notes on the Na'vi's presumed evolutionary background. There is an animal, the Prolemuris, that 'has two arms that bifurcate into four forearms; the upper bones of the arms have fused... Biologists believe that this may be an evolutionary precursor to the two-armed Na'vi'. There are two difficulties with this: I suspect that this arrangement would not function at all well, but, more importantly, 'limb fusion' as an evolutionary process seems utterly incredible. If you want to lose limbs, have them gradually decrease in size (the insectoid aliens in 'District 9' did have such minuscule middle legs, if I remember correctly). You might expect the resulting 'fused limbs' to look different from our own, but the natives' arms are so human that you might as well assume that human arms are the result of limb fusion. As a joke you could argue that the presence of two bones in our forearms suggests this to be true... But I really wonder how the film's biological advisors reacted to 'limb fusion'. I doubt they invented it, and surely they raised similar objections?

Thanator from book; click to enlarge

On towards the hexapods. I was not the first to design large alien animals with six legs and won't be the last. But I did think hard about how such animals might walk, and wrote computer programs to explore gaits in a six dimensional phase space to prove it. I know this sounds a bit pedantic, but the Furaha page shows I did. Just go to the land page, or directly here. One of Avatar's stars is the thanator, a large predator, as sleek and supple as a panther. Its middle and front pairs of legs are very close together, as can be seen on the image above, from the book mentioned above. The anatomy and the movement pattern of the first two pairs of legs are virtually identical, which is very odd. Other Pandoran hexapods have this same peculiar arrangement, as can be seen on the following images from the same book (the white triangles here and there are due to the fact that the images on the book were printed at an angle to the page, and I tried to rectify that).

Hammerhead from book; click to enlarge

Sturmbeest from book; click to enlarge

Viperwolf from book; click to enlarge

One result of having the front and middle legs so close together is that there is no good way to connect the shoulder girdle to the torso. The images above show that the animals have typical mammalian shoulder blades; the thanator image even shows typical mammal muscles. One such, the latissimus dorsi, can be seen running from the shoulder blade of the middle leg backwards to the torso. There are typically other large muscles running in all directions from the shoulder blade. How do you solve having two such sets in the same space?

Fragment from 'featurette'

Another result is that such legs almost certainly have to move in unison or they will collide. You typically do not get a long view of anything in Avatar, so here is a small video in which a fragment of direhorses is repeated a few times. The front and middle legs on one side indeed move in tandem. Not always, but generally they do. Mind you, there are two other solutions to avoid clashing legs that I will not go into here, but neither seems to be in use on Pandora. Anatomically these animals have six legs, but functionally they are tetrapods. I do not think that leg clashes can be prevented completely with this anatomy. With that in mind, the scene of the thanator chasing the hero could have ended quite differently: just when the thanator is about to grab the hero, the poor beasts trips over its own legs and crashes to the floor...

Again, you wonder why this design was chosen. According to one internet site one of the advisors, Wayne Barlowe, had this to say: "There was some concern as to the biomechanics of the six legs but my guess was that if they were grouped four towards the front and two in the rear locomotion issues would be solved. Those worries were pretty much put to rest after some informative motion tests were run."

But why should there be any concern about the biomechanics of six legs to start with? Six legs are part of the standard insect design, so six-legged locomotion isn't exactly a novel concept. I am not aware of any insects moving like Avatar's hexapod animals. The insect standard gait is a double tripod, a perfectly sensible solution for slow movement. Insects of course make good use of the fact that they have six legs, and, unlike Pandoran hexapods, do not pretend to have four only. The given explanation has an odd ring to it coming from someone with biological acumen, almost as if there was another, nonbiological reason for this clumsy and implausible arrangement. Perhaps the producers felt that the animals would look too alien if the animals moved in too unfamiliar a manner. I have no idea.

Go see Avatar; I loved most of it. But not for the biomechanics. Surely it would not have been that difficult to make better use of easily accessible knowledge; facts are not expensive. Not many people may notice or care, but the ones that do notice are probably the ones who care a lot.

Saturday 6 February 2010

The Future is Wild... and it is Manga!

My plans to write posts less frequently are thwarted (I've always wanted to use that word) by being spoilt for choice. Greenworld should be good for two posts, Avatar is nice, particularly the odd choices the designers made when it came to locomotion, some bandes dessinées deserve attention, etc. I decided to continue with the Japanese theme a bit. I guess that readers who really like speculative biology will have come into contact with 'The Future is Wild' (TFIW); after all, there was a television series, there are books, there is theme park in France and there are websites. In fact, a commenter on the blog once expressed irritation with an overdose of 'The Future is Wild'. I sympathise with that, as I have felt the same from time to time. After a certain point you know the images and the animals, and repeated exposure to the same images or clips no longer excites the viewer. Apparently a new TV series is in the making as well as a cinema version, so there should be lots of new images. This post is about the 'old' TFIW animals. In Japan they have turned it into a manga, or comic book, published by Futabasha. In several European countries, France foremost, comic books are regarded as an art form: the neuvième art (ninth art). Like films, their styles differ appreciably between countries, which adds to their enjoyment: 'bandes dessinées', 'comics' and manga are not the same at all. My knowledge of mangas is rather poor; it seems that almost anything can be turned into a manga, and TFIW was no exception.
Click to enlarge; copyright Takaaki Ogawa
This is its front cover. As you can see it mentions Dougal Dixon, John Adams and Takaaki Ogawa, who I gather is the artist, i.e., the mangaka. I picked up a copy through Ebay, but if you want to you can easily order it through Amazon in Japan, which has English pages. You may well wonder how you turn a documentary about animals into a manga. Easy: just add a story. That is what this book does. In fact, quite a few wildlife documentaries do exactly the same. There are about 250 pages, containing 8 stories as well as a glossary, and introduction and some other bits and ends. There is some anthropomorphism, in which animals' emotions are shown on their faces in a way recognisable to humans (by the way, the image language the Japanese use seems to differ a bit from European usage, but not so much that the message is lost -I think!-). But adding anthropomorphism is again not too dissimilar from what happens in some nature documentaries (the best do not). The various TFIW stories have different themes. I have picked out images from two stories. One story deals with an individual adult toraton (I will assume you know your TFIW, and if not, the internet will provide). A young toraton disturbs a swampus, which bites it on the neck, and the startled youngster swings its head out of the way and accidentally pokes out one of the adult's eyes. That is the setting for the following page.
Click to enlarge; copyright Takaaki Ogawa
Mind you, manga are typically printed on somewhat grayish paper and aren't that big, meaning that the contrast of these scans is much better than what you see on the printed page. The images are quite large, so you can have a good look (but downloading might take time!). You can work out the story for yourselves: the young animal dies, and the adult has lost an eye (it later dies as well). Did I mention that you should learn to read right frames before left frames, in the reverse order you are used to? I might be wrong about the story line, not being able to read the text in Japanese. If I am, I hope that any Japanese readers will correct me. The reason to choose this picture was not primarily the sad story of one toraton's death; instead, there is an interesting scene in the foreground of the last frame. Here is a detail:
Click to enlarge; copyright Takaaki Ogawa
Stomatopods, my favourite! Mantis shrimps, and on land too! Were they in the TFIW documentary? I think not, otherwise I would probably have remembered. After all, they were the inspiration for Furahan hexapod predators, exhibiting centaurism. These mantis shrimps seem to be devouring a frog together, and as far as I know current mantis shrimps are firecely territorial. So these are social terrestrial mantis shrimps; impressive. I wonder what would hapen if squid and mantis shrimp somehow would make it onto dry land. Personally, I doubt terrestrial squid would have stood much of a chance: the squid have to develop a feasible mode of walking, and the mantis shrimp have that already. I wonder whether the mangaka added the stomatopods for his own amusement? The remaining images are of the squibbon / megasquid story. I discussed the megasquid before, and decided that I did not think walking on tentacles was at all likely, and certainly not for something as large as a megasquid. For squibbons the story might be a bit different, but still they seem unlikely. But never mind that now.
Click to enlarge; copyright Takaaki Ogawa
This page I like for its graphical qualities. I can only guess that the story alludes to the squibbons possible intelligence; are they pondering the age of Earth or the size of the Universe?
Click to enlarge; copyright Takaaki Ogawa
Thirteen pages later there is this lone squibbon. being social animals, a lone squibbon is probably a sad squibbon.
Click to enlarge; copyright Takaaki Ogawa
The next page seems to show a happy ending: other squibbons offer bioluminescent thingies (fungi?). Looking at TFIW in this way may take some getting used to, but I rather like it. Computer generated images still tend to look a bit stiff or awkward, and as long as they do so, I prefer drawings or paintings. Paintings are often much livelier and they also appeal to the imagination more than CGI renderings. This manga is lively, and, provided you increase the contrast, the graphic qualities of some pages and panels is good. I found that it does not matter that much that I cannot understand Japanese. I am obviously missing some information, but I certainly cannot complain about a lack of a sense of wonder: there is quite a bit of that.