Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

The LonCon3 Speculative Biology event


A LonCon3 SpecBio montage: at far left, CG head of a Furahan rusp by Gert van Dijk (c); at centre, giant penguins from Dougal Dixon's After Man (c).

I’ve just returned from LonCon3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, held at the enormous ExCel Exhibition Centre in east London. Yeah, I know, sci-fi isn’t exactly a normal part of the Tet Zoo remit but, on this occasion, there really is overlap since I was there for a set of special Speculative Biology talks and discussions. Initiated and organised by Gert van Dijk of the excellent Furahan Biology and Allied Matters blog (and associated websites), the event also involved author and exobiologist Lewis Dartnell, Memo Kosemen of Snaiad, All Yesterdays and many other projects, the inimitable ‘Father of Speculative Zoology’ Dougal Dixon (Dixon 1981, 1988, 1990, 2010), and myself.

At back: Gert van Dijk (l) and Memo Kosemen (r). Seated: Darren Naish (l) and Dougal Dixon (r). Lewis Dartnell was elsewhere when this photo was taken.

To begin with, I'd like to share a few general comments on the event itself. LonCon3 is probably the biggest meeting I’ve ever attended: vast, sprawling, attended by thousands (over 10,000, in fact), and with an absurd number of parallel sessions (more than 15). I always end up feeling so overwhelmed by events of this size that I end up taking refuge at the bar, or sitting in sessions that aren’t of special interest to me (but generally prove pretty worthwhile anyway: I liked the panel discussion I attended on Spanish sci-fi!).

And the event was so packed that some things I did want to attend (‘Just Three Cornettos’ and ‘The State of British SF’ among them) were inaccessible when I tried to get in (that is, the rooms were at full capacity). I got wrapped up in meetings and drinking and missed lots of things I planned to attend, or couldn’t make them due to overlap: I missed Tori Herridge’s talk on the evolution of pygmy mammoths, panel discussions on scientific fakes and frauds, sexism, and the one titled ‘“Your ‘realistic’ fantasy is a washed out colourless emptiness compared to the Rabelaisian reality.” Discuss’. Cosplay and such was less in evidence than I was hoping, but, then, I didn’t go to the grand social events nor attend every single day of the meeting. I did see jawas, a Slenderman, pixie women, and had my photo taken with Elio and Linda of Thronecast fame. George R. R. Martin was busy (he was there, by the way).

Montage of Snaiad creatures by Memo Kosemen. Much more on Snaiad below!

Anyway, our Speculative Biology events kicked off on Thursday 15th August with an hour-long panel session. We were supposed to indulge in an interactive discussion of some sort, take questions from the audience and that sort of thing. Alas, confusion over the amount of time we had allocated and a cancellation and redacted cancellation from one member of our group led to an ‘innovative’ approach and we ended up doing more presenting of thoughts and less discussing of ideas. Never mind; nobody complained (except the guy in the audience shouting about segmented worms. Man, we had some, err, memorable audience members).

Lewis Dartnell discussed facts and fallacies concerning exobiology, focusing in particular on the colours and forms that plants (or plant-like organisms) might adopt according to gravitational regimes and the spectral characteristics of nearby stars. It was then over to me: I focused entirely on speculative zoology. I provided a brief, selective historical review of speculative zoology as portrayed through literature, TV and cinema before going on to discuss the overlap between speculative zoology and cryptozoology (Conway et al. 2013, Naish 2014), and the role and ‘value’ of speculative zoology. This is actually the same talk I gave at TetZooCon; seeing as there was 0% overlap in audience membership I figured this was ok.

Montage of images related to Speculative Zoology, from my talk: featured images by Steve White (bottom left), Brian Choo (top centre), John Sibbick (top right), Darren Naish and Tim Morris (bottom right).

Gert van Dijk was up next and discussed a few ideas relevant to the creatures of Furaha. Some ideas that might seem neat when ‘creature building’ prove difficult to maintain when physical and biological constraints are considered. Gert used balloon creatures as a case study, describing how he had initially planned to have the atmosphere of Furaha populated by floating gas-bag 'ballonts' of diverse sizes. But, no, physics disallows such organisms in view of problems regarding gravity, the mass of the tissues that have to be involved, and the mechanisms available for generating lift (if you’re interested in the full discussion see Gert’s article on the issue here). More on Gert in a moment.

Dougal Dixon discusses SpecBio at LonCon3 - what a treat! Photo by Darren Naish.

Memo Kosemen then provided a brief overview of the art of speculative biology – he suggests that we now have a unique and independent SpecBio ‘movement’ that warrants widespread recognition via exhibitions and books. Yes, bring it on. Dougal Dixon – surely the main draw of the event for most of the audience – was up next. I know Dougal reasonably well (you might recall the recent interview published here at Tet Zoo) but this is the first time I’ve seen a Dougal Dixon presentation in public. I have guilt here, since my own presentation on the history of speculative zoology meant that I’d robbed Dougal the chance to discuss the background to his own work... yikes. Anyway, in the end, he provided a quick autobiographical review of the story behind After Man, The New Dinosaurs and Greenworld – very much a prelude to the longer, Greenworld-focused talk he gave a few days later.

On Furaha and Snaiad

Gert van Dijk discusses the origins of Furaha and his early career in illustrating the cover of sci-fi books. Photo by Darren Naish. (c) Gert van Dijk.

Fast forward a day, ignore the adventures in between (ha ha: TetZoopodcats in the Pub!), and we come to a selection of proper, dedicated SpecBio talks. Gert and Memo both now had time to talk about their own respective world-building exercises. Gert is an amazing artist who began his adventures in sci-fi by painting the covers of novels. He became bored with requests to illustrate explosions and laser guns and took to concentrating instead on alien animals and plants, eventually creating his own fictional planet – Furaha – populated by a diversity of organisms.

Just a few of the many organisms created for Furaha and viewable at Gert's blog. Images (c) Gert van Dijk.

As readers of Gert’s blog will know, he frequently aims to test and answer questions surrounding biomechanical solutions to problems of locomotion. The lifestyles and styles of movement available to large hexapods of the sort present on Furaha were discussed (yes, Avatar got it very wrong), as were options available to spider-like walkers, multi-legged animals like Furaha’s sauropod-sized rusps, and Gert’s swimming cloakfish. A book on Furaha has essentially been done (or even wholly done) and needs publishing – I think Gert is trying to find a publisher [UPDATE: see comment # 8 below].

Memo reveals some of his very earliest illustrations of Snaiad's alien creatures. Photo by Darren Naish. (c) C. M. Kosemen.

Gert’s talk on Furaha was followed by Memo Kosemen’s on Snaiad, an alien planet dominated by a group of superficially tetrapod-like creatures that frequently possess dorsally located, jaw-like organs (actually genital sheaths) and more ventrally located, typically elongate feeding structures. In fact, Snaiad might well break the record as goes the number of fictional entities invented so far – Memo has invented a huge number of lineages, with many more yet to come and only illustrated in preliminary fashion. Incidentally, the Snaiad website has only recently been re-launched and long-time readers might recall it being mentioned here at Tet Zoo once or twice in the past. During the talk, we were treated to a world-first as Memo showed us never-before-seen, early images depicting Snaiad creatures (invented before the project even had the name it has now). The mass appeal of Snaiad was demonstrated by the invention of Spore versions of Snaiad creatures, by the number of website mentions, by fan-art of assorted genres, and by the enthusiasm of the attending audience.

Incidentally, Memo came up with the brilliant idea of producing art prints of various illustrations produced for our assorted projects. We all had a bunch of these and people could take them (or get them signed) for free.

SpecBio postcards printed by Memo: these few feature (top left) a selection of Squamozoic animals by Darren Naish, (lower left) a Snaiad creature by Memo Kosemen, and (right) a Greenworld Bounty poster by Dougal Dixon.

Dougal Dixon’s Greenworld

Dougal Dixon and guests read excerpts from Greenworld. Note the models on the table. Photo by Darren Naish.

Our selection of talks ended on Saturday evening with Dougal Dixon’s excellent and enthralling presentation on Greenworld, his two-volume, multi-generational epic (Dixon 2010). Greenworld – so far only published in Japanese – describes how human colonists establish an off-world colony on an Earth-like planet and proceed to document, exploit, compete with and exterminate the indigenous species. Throughout the story, we see the world and its indigenous inhabitants through the eyes and experiences of the human colonists – native creatures are killed off as vermin or competitors, domesticated and exploited, or made extinct as their habitat is modified or destroyed. At the risk of giving away the project’s main storyline, the primary arc involves the re-playing of the events that occurred on the Earth fled by the colonists at the start of the story (Dixon 2010). Things do not end well.

Some of Dougal Dixon's artwork for Greenworld, on show at the meeting. Photo by Darren Naish. (c) Dougal Dixon.

Dougal Dixon with model Strida (and symbiont). People learn to remove the symbionts and ride the stridas... but things don't exactly work out as hoped. Photo by Darren Naish. (c) Dougal Dixon.

Dougal brought along model Stridas (and riders) and other Greenworld creatures and characters, as well as images from the books, images of the technical papers published by Greenworld scientists on Greenworld geology and the phylogenetic history and classification of the planet’s organisms, and copies of the books themselves. An English-language version is needed – I think that Dougal is looking for a publisher.

Judging by the success of our collection of talks overall and by the audiences we attracted, speculative biology in general – and the speculative biology set of talks at LonCon3 – are/were extremely popular; this popularity possibly being at an all-time high. Published works on Snaiad and Furaha are somewhere in the pipeline, Greenworld (Dixon 2010) needs an English translation, and other projects that overlap with the speculative biology remit – like All Yesterdays and my own Squamozoic project – are set to be expanded in the future.

So, it went well. Huge thanks to Gert for organising it all, and thanks to Memo, Dougal and Lewis for making the event what it was. We are talking about arranging special SpecBio events in the future... watch this space.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on speculative biology, speculative evolution and speculative zoology, see...

Refs - -

Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. 2013. Cryptozoologicon Volume I. Irregular Books.

Dixon, D. 1981. After Man: A Zoology of the Future. Granada, London.

- . 1988. The New Dinosaurs: An Alternative Evolution. Salem House, Topsfield (MA).

- . 1990. Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future. Blandford, London.

- . 2010. Greenworld (two volumes). Diamond, Tokyo.

Naish, D. 2014. Speculative zoology. Fortean Times 316, 52-53.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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