Aliens and the Alcon Blue Butterfly

Aliens and the Alcon Blue Butterfly

First off a heavy disclaimer here: This post is based upon segments from a chapter of Jim Al-Khalili’s recent book ‘Science Asks: Is There Anybody Out There?’ (2016).

The publication is a spellbinding compendium that summarises the bleeding edge of science’s rapidly evolving hunt for extraterrestrial life and includes contributions from 20 expert minds, each at the vanguard of there respective fields.

If you’re even slightly interested in the scientific approach to ET this simply is a must-read, and offers both tantalising and tangible solutions to one of humanity’s greatest questions – Are we alone in the universe?

Lets then focus on Chapter 15 and introduce you to the superior wit and intellect of British geneticist, author and broadcaster Adam Rutherford.

‘It Came from Beyond the Silver Screen! Aliens in the Movies’

For his contribution Rutherford sets out to explore the way film-makers (and in extension video games) have sought to portray on screen alien lifeforms. It’s a frankly hilarious, yet logical, smackdown of all the most common sci-fi movie tropes. The cornerstone of which, of course, is anthropomorphism, and thus the essay begins with:

“They mostly get it wrong. Mostly. Film-makers have been infusing culture with their visions of aliens for more than a century, and almost all of them have been a lot like us.”

From here on in Rutherford glides from decade to sub-genre in a century-spanning sojourn that ranges from the downright ridiculous to the potentially plausible. Predictably the balance swings far in favour of the prior.

Indeed so much is covered, so eloquently, in such a short space of time, it leaves one feeling like Keanu Reeve’s character Neo in The Matrix (1999) in which, via digital upload, he instantly learns kung-fu. Interestingly that film sits firmly on the more credible end of the SF movie spectrum, (read Simulation Theory).

One particular highlight is a total assassination of the threadbare science that seeks to underpin Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). As Rutherford quickly points out why (via panspermia) would an alien race seek to seed life that then takes 3+ Billion years to evolve into a slightly shorter, darker skinned and less beach-bodied version of itself? Science shows us that evolution is raw happenchance. Adjust even the slightest variable in our cosmic and planetary evolutionary history and life would be completely different or would not be at all.

Prometheus - Yes Iceland really is worth visiting!

Of course, it’s not all negative, there are indeed a handful of films that got it right. They work because they do not seek to anthropomorphize the alien form, it’s behaviour or motives. I shall not list any – you should buy and read the book – though I’m sure you can perhaps guess one or two.

Let’s then move to the main event as Rutherford shifts his attention to the parasitical, razor-tipped nightmare that first terrified viewers with the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).

The Art of Alien Isolation

Alien is the absolute definition of a Sci-Fi classic, but how does the science hold up?

Here the perspective takes an astonishing slant, as Rutherford beautifully demonstrates how even the black, blank genius of H.R.Giger’s phallic, biomechanical killing-machine can easily be trumped by the work of ‘mother nature’.

Let’s then introduce you to the Alcon Blue butterfly (Phengaris Alcon). Butterflies are graceful and beautiful things, sugar and light.

Not this one.

Alcon_Blue_Butterfly_Phengaris_Alcon

The following italicised excerpt is the writing of Adam Rutherford:

The Alcon Blue butterfly (Phengaris Alcon) is very pretty, but appearances can be deceiving for it is a rather wicked creature. It lays its eggs on the Swiss wildflower Gentiana, where the larva feed until they are fatted, and then roll on the ground waiting to be discovered by ants. The grubs secrete a chemical which mesmerises the poor deluded ants into thinking they are their own babies, and bring them into the hive, whereupon the butterfly grubs eat the ant grubs.

Once ready to emerge into the world from its ant-cuckoo brood, the butterfly does have to run the gauntlet to escape, as the ants suddenly realise that this flap-winged thing is not actually one of them at all. However, the newborn butterfly is armoured with flaky scales that the ants struggle to grab hold of, and it bludgeons its way out, hotly pursued by some irate cuckolds.

And if you think all this evolved opportunism is remarkable, consider the wasp Ichneumon eumerus: its main hosts are Alcon Blue grubs! The females scour the ground for the scent of the ant colonies, and will only enter those that have the butterfly larvae in them. Inside, she pierces the belly of the fattest butterfly grub using her very pointy ovipositor, and inserts a single egg. She also marks the nest with a chemical that warns off other ichneumon wasps from doing the same. After nine or ten months of being nurtured by ants inside a butterfly maggot pretending to be an ant, the wasp is ready to burst from its host, and releases a chemical that causes the ants to fight each other and not attack the wasp.

Parasitism like this is very alien to us humans, and yet it abounds in nature, and it’s pleasing to see elements of a parasitic life cycle present in the Alien films; the insertion of an egg into a host; the messy bursting forth; the armour plating; the shed skin. But imagine pitching the story of the Alcon Blue to a Hollywood producer.

Nature is frequently hard to believe, and this butterfly story sounds just a little unlikely. Alongside the original Alien films (of which there were eventually four), there were two horrid spin-offs featuring another filmic alien, the Predator. The best thing about these wretched films was the tagline for the Alien versus Predator poster: ‘Whoever wins … we lose’. That’s how the ants must feel.

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Notes:

Aliens: Science Asks: Is There Anyone Out There? is available from all good bookstores, or as I purchased via Amazon for Kindle

The best five bucks I’ve spent in a long while, I cannot recommend it enough!

Follow Adam Rutherford on twitter and read more about him via Wikipedia.

Follow Jim Al-Khalili on twitter.

Title Image is, of course, the work of H.R.Giger, other Alien images are renderings from Sega’s Alien Isolation. Also featured prior, a still from Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012).

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Adam Makarenko – Exoplanets & Interview

Sci-Fi-O-Rama resurrects with a very special feature on Canadian miniature Photographer and Film Maker Adam Makarenko.

An award winning multi talented Artist Adam’s obviously involved with a plethora of supremely interesting visual projects, but it’s his outrageously ambitious ‘exoplanets’ mission we focus in on.

Adam Makarenko Exoplanet

Exoplanets of course are rarely out of the news these and the science to hunt them has come along way since the first definitive detection back in 1995 (Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the University of Geneva). Fast forward 22 years and as of the start of April 2017 confirmed exoplanets number over 3,500 and range from huge gas giants right down to worlds a similar size to our own precious Earth.

Just how earth like are these worlds, and are they suitable for life ? These are the tantalising questions cosmologists and biologists face today. To answer is a mammoth technical challenge, not unlike Adam’s endeavour to experiment and construct his vision of these far flung worlds in miniature.

The Star Wars Space Armies of John Mollo
John Mollo Starwars costume sketchs

(1) Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith – evil figurehead of the Imperial Forces. (2) A member of Darth Vader’s Guard Corps. Notice the Vader style helmet. (3) This Imperial AT-ST pilot wears armour in the style of the Stormtroopers.

Just in case you’ve been living under an icy rock in a galaxy far, far away you may of not noticed one of two things. Firstly Sci-Fi-O-Rama hasn’t published any new material for eons, and secondly there’s a brand new new Starwars Film out. So then, in an effort to bound the two together here’s a rare gem I’ve managed to unearth featuring the original trilogy’s Oscar winning Costume designer John Mollo.

What follows is a selection of Mollo’s costume designs and notes for ‘Starwars: A New Hope'(1977) and ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980).

“The first Darth Vader was wearing a motorcycle suit, and a sort of opera cloak, and a Nazi steel helmet, and a gas mask, and a medieval breast plate, all from different departments, all brought in together and put on, and it seemed to work”

John Mollo Starwars costume sketchs

(1) The design for the uniform of General Veers – again with a Vader-Style helmet. (2) An Imperial crewman, one of the lowlier members of the Imperial caste-system. (3) An Imperial Officer. The echoes of the German WWI are strong.

All drawings are rendered in an weighty rudimentary fashion that really signals the utilitarian ‘used-future’ aesthetic of which the Starwars films are so synonymous with. There’s something of an everyday feel here that is forever Starwars, suffice to say they really pack a punch.

On the Empire: “We agreed early on that the army should have a booted look, like the Germans in 1939, but actually their tunics look more like the 1914-18 ones. They’re cut longer. You try not to make the connection too obvious”.

John Mollo Starwars costume sketchs

(1) Princess Leia Organa – attired for survival on the snowy wastes of Hoth. (2) A Crewman of the Rebel order lipitor canada Alliance, dressed for the Icy conditions on Hoth. (3) Rebel Generals are dressedalike. Note the goggles, worn by Imperial Generals also. (4) The original design for Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness).

“George wanted Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to look like a cross between a monk and a samurai knight. It’s never really the principals who pose the problems, so much as the practical stuff for the extras. I remember, for the rebel pilots who have air hoses on their chests, we suddenly went out and got bath overflow pipes for them from the ironmonger’s outside the studio. We bought fifty, and he looked rather surprised.”

John Mollo Starwars costume sketchs

(1) Luke Skywalker in his combat outfit, his light-sabre slung from his belt. (2) The familiar garb of Han Solo, retained from the first film. (3) The bulky attire worn by the men who fly the X-Wing fighters, the Rebel Pilots. (4) The Rebel Snowtrooper, burdened with the equipment for sub-zero survival.

“Uniforms are really difficult to make so that they look good. It’s very easy to make them look bad, Basically, George wanted the Empire to look like Fascists, and the rebels like casual Americans. The storm troopers are in white instead of black so it’s less obvious. Their headgear is a cross between a flying helmet and a gas mask. Their costumes are guite flimsy, really.”

All images, caption notes and quotes hark from an interview with John Mollo conducted by Nicholas Leahy (1980 I’m guessing) and featured in the 23rd edition of Starburst Magazine.

Starburst is a long running British Sci-Fi publication that began in the late 70’s and exists now in both digital and print format, Each issue is bursting at the seams with Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy treasures with particular focus on TV and Movie. To be honest browsing through fifty or so publications acquired I was stunned at how many features concerned material I’d never heard of.

Watch this space.

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Foss by Jeff Love

Foss by Jeff Love

Sci-Fi-O-Rama proudly present a very special feature on Chris Foss, as profiled by Jeff Love, owner and admin of the sublime Sci-Fi art blog Ski-ffy.

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Born in 1946 in Guernsey, Channel Islands, Chris Foss is a British illustrator and a powerhouse of science fiction design and invention. His work is a celebration of future machinery, impossibly sized constructions exist on a planetary scale; a showcase of hardware so large that the human figure is dwarfed by comparison.

Chris Foss by Jeff Love

Arriving in the SF illustration field in the early 1970s, he is a cult figure, influential and universally admired. For British SF and SF art, his work can be seen as a catalyst; his prolific output was used abundantly in the UK paperback market, particularly by publishing houses like Panther, Coronet (Hodder & Stoughton) and Granada. Foss’ iconic paintings adorned the covers of American classics; E. E. Smith’s Lensman and Family d’Alembert series, reprints of the works of Asimov, James Blish and Philip K. Dick. These colourful scenes of gargantuan spacecraft, space-scenes and enormous robots not only influenced an entire school of imitators, but instilled a love of future-tech amongst several generations of science fiction fans.

UI BAKA

UI BAKA

Sci-Fi-O-Rama returns with a quick feature on a rather special Tumblr known simply as ‘UI BAKA‘.

Originating from ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’ this Tumblr celebrates the art of sci-fi interfaces with a particular slant towards Japanese Anime, something we’ve shamefully rarely covered.

So what to expect? Well all things bright and beautiful of course, and in this case that’s glowing wire spheres, rippling sine waves, flickering binaries and a large dollop of a targeting reticles.

Indeed whatever the incandescent element, and no matter the function, as long as somethings spins or pulses, it works.

The Model Shop Part 2: Norman Conquest 2066 sculpture by Grant Louden + interview

Norman Conquest 2066 - Grant Louden

After an exceptionally long gap between posts Sci-Fi-O-Rama finally returns with new material. Apologies for the extended state of dormancy, life gets in the way sometimes.

Let’s then not dwell on the forlorn and instead nuke 2015 with another flyby of master craftsman and styrene alchemist Grant Louden AKA Betelgeuse.

A quick recap then on what the Betelgeuse workshop is all about. Well in a nutshell Grant takes the finest Two Dimensional 70’s Sci-Fi cover art and literally breathes 3-Dimensional life over them.

We featured Grant’s first mind-blowing evolution of Colin Hay’s this time last year. This time it’s science fiction artisan illustrator Chris Foss is in the crosshairs.

Grant kindly took some time out to tell us more about his latest creation, here’s the feature:

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