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Interviews | September 2, 2014 1 comment
David Mitchell's newest mind-bending, time-skipping novel may be his most accomplished work yet. Written in six sections, one per decade, The Bone... Continue »
The Journey to Henders Islandby Warren Fahy
While trying to invent life forms as alien as those from another planet, I discovered that imagination is a feeble competitor with Mother Nature. The monsters of the mind can hardly rival what already exists in our own backyards.
Along the varied paths of my research I encountered mindboggling facts about the dynamic forces at play and at war on our planet, and more often than not found that evolution had already invented wilder creatures than I could imagine. My innovations were exposed as imitations, speculations became simulacra, and phantasms mere footnotes on the actual record of life. Writing the book showed me the awesome power and variety of life on Earth, which, through its long and storied history, has been many worlds, both fantastic and unimaginable, vestiges of which survive to this day.
I could not include everything I found during the process of researching Fragment. Therefore, I could not convey how completely reality parallels the fantastic world I was trying to create.
A rich layering of flora and fauna from different eras comprises all the complexity we see around us today because our planet has carried life forms launched from completely different eras on splintering trajectories, still adapting to fragmented environments around the world. Under a rock, we can find pill-bugs, descendants of arthropods that first emerged half a billion years ago. In a pond we can see algae that first emerged a billion years ago and perhaps fish that descended from ancestors who lived 440 million years ago. In the garden we can see snails whose ancestors emerged 250 million years ago. In the trees above sing feathered descendants of dinosaurs that first emerged over 200 million years ago. On the couch beside us, we might find a dog that descended from ancestors who arose 40 million years ago, or a cat whose first ancestors emerged 25 million years ago. In the ocean we may spy dolphins whose land-based ancestors began to return to the sea only 10 million years ago. And, of course, there we are, our lineage only distinguishing itself about four million years ago.
Early on in the evolution of Henders Island I sketched out the idea for a catapult-like tail extending forward under an animal in order to propel certain species on the island in bursting leaps. I had found no analogs for this type of locomotion, and while some pointed out their doubts that it would work, I was quite proud of the innovation — until I learned of tiny insect-like creatures called, aptly, springtails. The springtail has a locking catapult tail astonishingly similar to the ones I imagined. These creatures are capable of leaping farther in proportion to their size than any animal on Earth, including the mighty flea. Their jumps are literally equivalent to Superman "leaping tall buildings in a single bound."
I was sure that the concept of rolling as a means of locomotion had little possibility of violating nature's patents — until I discovered that juvenile stomatopods (mantis shrimp) often grab their tails and roll down beaches to the surf when they are in danger. Here was a species that figured into the novel I had just written, as a link between Henders species and the rest of the world, and yet I had not discovered this fact about stomatopods until after I had created disk-ants. Some mountain-dwelling lizards also roll to escape from predators.
Sticky tendrils like those of jellyfish hang over the jungle corridors of Henders Island. I found that the larvae of the fungus gnat hangs just such glittering tendrils from cave ceilings to catch their prey.
Like disk-ants, many arthropods, such as wolf spiders, carry their tiny young in a mass on their bodies. Many animals, from chameleons to cuttlefish, display changing colors on their bodies. Marine hatchet fish actually display the color of the sky above them with light-emitting cells called photophors on their bellies to confuse predators stalking them from below, a camouflage that blends with the changing weather!
Some algae change color in reaction to light and nutrition, and some bacteria feed on rock, carving out giant caves under the surface of the Earth. Henders "clover" does both these things. Just as Henders clover is a symbiont between algae and bacteria that produces acid, lichen is a real-world symbiont between algae and fungi.
Like the drill-worms of the book, fig wasps use their long stingers to bore into figs and lay their eggs inside. Like many other denizens of Henders Island, the female larvae of the fig wasp are born pregnant, having already been impregnated by males.
Henders animals can have two brains. Some praying mantises also have two brains, since the female of the species has a habit of eating the male's head during sex and the male has to complete his sole function.
And then, of course, entire ecosystems have evolved in isolation. These are the real Henders Islands, both discovered and undiscovered. Whole treasure troves of undiscovered life are being uncovered all the time, in the depths of polar seas, in the wilds of New Guinea, in the ice of Antarctica, and who knows where next? Breathtakingly alien ecosystems like those of the Island of Socotra, the Seychelles, the Azores and Madagascar are like tiny alien worlds lost in the great blue space of the world's oceans.
Hamlet was right — there are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of in our philosophy, and I suspect, for all of our longing to find other worlds in outer space and new frontiers to explore, we will not exhaust our discoveries on this world as long as our species shall persist.
Let us hope that curiosity doesn't kill the cat along the way.
÷ ÷ ÷
Warren Fahy has been a bookseller, a statistical analyst, and managing editor of a video database, where he wrote hundreds of movie reviews for a nationally syndicated column. He is currently the lead writer for Wowwee, generating creative content for their line of advanced robotic toys. He lives in San Diego, California. Delacorte will publish his next novel in 2010.