Monday, March 17, 2014

The Alien of Alien

Though I’m tempted to wax poetic about how badass Sigourney Weaver was in Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien (the first female protagonist in an American sf film—very exciting!), I found the design of the alien more interesting. Here I analyze it from both a biological and artistic point of view.
            The design of the alien, and really the entire set of Alien, originated in a lithograph by H.R. Giger called Necronomicon IV, pictured below. It has the build of a human in that it has arms and hands, and is bipedal. In all other ways, however, it is distinctly nonhuman.

            One of the more intriguing aspects of the biology of the alien is its pharyngeal jaw. When it opens its mouth, the alien reveals a secondary jaw that can extend to puncture, grab, and pull in its prey, as shown below.


            This type of jaw has an analog in Earth’s moray eel. Unlike most fish, which quickly expand their throat to create negative pressure to suck in their prey, the moray eel possesses a secondary jaw in its pharynx which can move forward toward the oral jaw, grab prey, and draw it down into its throat where it can be swallowed. It is thought that the moray eel evolved this jaw from its first set of ribs to accommodate its preferred home: burrows in rocky sea floors. With a pharyngeal jaw, moray eels do not have to leave their narrow tunnels in order to expand their throats and suck in their prey. Rather, they can stay in their holes and stealthily strike from the shadows.
            Does the pharyngeal jaw reveal something about the preferred habitat of its ancestors? Its constant coating of watery slime, streamlined head, and long tail all suggest that it is descended from aquatic organisms. Throughout the film, the alien also exhibits the burrowing behavior typical to a moray eel, whether it be in the crevices of the Nostromo, a tunnel on an alien planet, or in the gut of a human host. The larval stage (aka chestburster stage) of the alien certainly resembles something that should live at the bottom of the ocean.
            The reproductive cycle of the alien is also noteworthy in that it is confusing. Most interpretations place the facegrabber as the initial phase of the alien lifecycle as a placenta with agency, its purpose being to locate a host and implant the alien embryo before dying. I would argue, however, that the facegrabber is an entirely separate generation of alien capable of parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilization, or animal self-cloning). This cyclic parthenogenesis, or heterogamy, is found on Earth in species like water fleas. A modified version of this is found in all land plants, but it is known as alternation of generations. Animal species with cyclic parthenogenesis tend to reproduce quickly (as does the alien) and rely on parthenogenesis when their population is low and there are plenty of nutrients available. It is useful for outcompeting other species with numbers alone. I can see how this might be useful for the alien, which seems adapted to invading planets, decimating the population, and laying many spore-like eggs that can exist without nutrients for an unknown lengths of time.
            Based solely on the information provided in the first Alien (as the gender system of the species is explained in later films), one might conclude that the facegrabber is the female alien and its child is the male. In this case, the facegrabber must have been inseminated prior to its birth, as are many species of wasp on Earth (the fig wasps being the example that come most readily to mind). This wasp imagery is consistent with the endoparasitic nature of the larval stage, but I think it is unlikely as most of the examples of preadolescent insemination on Earth are associated with the coevolution of wasps and a plant host. In contrast, the aliens are a highly independent species that can use seemingly any warm-blooded organism as a chestburster host and do not require a host in which to oviposit their spore-like eggs.
            On a side-note, why are wasps the model organism for alien design in science fiction film and literature? Are segmented bodies, compound eyes, and parasitic larva really that scary? Do science fiction writers know that wasps, like all insects, respire with a system of air tubes that open directly to the outside of their bodies and rely either on passive diffusion or are regulated by the movement of their limbs? Do they know that this system of respiration is not efficient enough to sustain insects the size of a man in an atmosphere with Earth levels of oxygen? Who do they think they’re fooling?
            Of course, all disbelief must be suspended in regard to the adaptability of the alien. With tissue enhanced with polarized silicone (whatever that is), hemolymph strong enough to burn though concrete and steel, and the ability to synthesize biomass from what we can only assume is the air (because, honestly, how did the chestburster turn into an adult without eating anything?), the only limiting factor to alien reproductive fitness seems to be the availability of hosts.
            The invincibility of the alien is reflected in its artistic design. H.R. Giger’s style is characterized by the blending of human anatomy with metallic technology (often with overt sexual themes). In contrast to the soft organic look of the humans, the alien blends into the grimy, metal interior of the ship, reflecting its superior adaptations to its environment. Even the parts of its body that are not covered in a shiny carapace are more similar to blackened machine cables than skin. Even the one android on board the Nostromo is fragile compared to the alien, requiring only a few whacks to the neck to be “killed.”
            The design of the alien also reflects its insanely strong sexual drive. The one goal of the species is reproduction, as seen in the actions of the facegrabber and in the Xenomorphs in later films. The head of the alien resembles a penis, especially in the original lithograph by Giger shown above. The pharyngeal jaw of the alien, which it uses to puncture the skull of its victims, and the mechanisms the facegrabber uses to implant the embryo and feed the host oxygen are also rife with phallic symbolism. This added reproductive imagery makes the design of the alien an interesting blend of sharp technology and organic softness. Whether this was intentional or an extension of Giger’s hypersexual style (a more subtle example of which is pictured below) is unknown.

            What can we take from the design of the alien? The subversion of reproductive roles and sexual imagery echoes the handling of gender roles in the movie. It’s also interesting that the antagonist of Alien was simply a creature trying to complete its reproductive cycle—the subject of many a human romantic comedy. Perhaps we are supposed to read the unchecked reproduction of the alien as a caution to think about what affect our own reproduction has on society?

The appropriation of the alien by the corporation that owned the Nostromo probably says something about the ethical implications of studying biology for commercial reasons and the introduction of invasive species. I don’t know how I feel about evil scientist characterization of the science officer and the scientists of the corporation, though. What type of society do Ellen Ripley and the crew live in where there aren’t ethical laws for research? Hopefully Scott only wanted us to keep ethics in mind when we proceed to study new organisms rather than condemn scientific research as a whole.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Guess who just fell in love with Octavia Butler

Wow. “Bloodchild” was terrific! What a short story. It was the perfect mix of horror, gore, and science. Besides the fact that it perfectly expressed my feelings about human pregnancy, it was fantastically crafted, combining futuristic politics, speculative alien anatomy, references to coevolution, and allusions to community ecology that we study on Earth. What imagination! For instance:
This image was shown in a Powerpoint presented in my Plant Biology lecture today—I kid you not! It shows the eggs of Cotesia congregatus (a type of parasitic wasp) larvae on a Manduca sexta (a caterpillar model organism). When the caterpillar feeds on plant tissue, the plant changes its chemical composition local to the wound, triggering a systemic response that releases volatile compounds into the air. The plant has coevolved with species of parasitic wasp (in this case Cotesia congregates) so that the wasp is attracted to the volatiles and can lay their eggs in the caterpillars feeding on the plant. The eggs then feed off of the caterpillar as they grow, exactly like the Tlic larvae in “Bloodchild” feed off of their human hosts!
            Of course, there are plenty of examples of this type of parasitism on Earth, but I absolutely love it when authors apply animal biology and ecology to humans. People have negative gut reactions to this trope, but I think it’s educational. The fact is that it’s normal for other organisms use each other in these ways, just as it is normal for other organisms to have indeterminate gender (again, I’m thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness). Uneducated social opinion has denormalized many biological concepts and made us a squeamish race.
            On Earth, humans place themselves above natural selection and survival of the fittest. This is good, of course, but it has also given us a hubris that is reflected in (the vast majority of) our speculative fiction. When most authors write about space travel, they feature humans as the educated and highly evolved species that has come to inspect a foreign civilization. What if when humans travel to an alien planet they are instead assimilated into a preexisting ecosystem as they have been in “Bloodchild?” This is a far more interesting narrative than the one found in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and probably more realistic. (The psychology of the characters in “Bloodchild” is complex as a result of this vestigial hubris combined with their new role as host for the Tlic, but I don’t have time to go into it here!)
            I hesitate to call the Tlic parasites. It is evident that they cannot reproduce without using a host (why they cannot engineer nonliving hosts and grow their children in vitro is a mystery), which makes them parasites, but at the same time the humans are totally dependent on the Tlic for survival on a planet to which they are not well adapted, which makes their relationship somewhat symbiotic. Then again, it was thought that the relationship between farmer ants and the aphids they farm was symbiotic until it was discovered that the aphids are not more reproductively successful when they are farmed (also, the ants cut off all their limbs so that they couldn’t escape, which couldn’t have been pleasant). Therefore, further research must be done on the effect of Tlic parasitism versus the lack of Tlic assistance on human fitness in order to truly understand whether the relationship is parasitic or symbiotic. If only I could perform my own experiments!
            It is also a possibility that the humans have spent several generations on the planet and have begun to evolve resistance to the traumatic births of the larvae. How else could Gan’s father have hatched three clutches of the things? A similar coevolution has occurred between humans and the human botfly, which lays its eggs in human skin. A human botfly host experiences minimal discomfort—mostly itching and some pain when the larva feeds—and when the larva hatches it leaves only a small lesion to signal its former presence. The entire process is entirely hygienic for the human—very little chance of infection. After all, why would it be advantageous to the botfly to kill off its host if it doesn’t have to? With another thousand years or so of evolution, the relationship between the Tlic and humans may become less invasive.

            In conclusion, “Bloodchild” was fantastic. Wow.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Character Design in Blade Runner

Though I was disappointed that Ridley Scott left out the majority of the themes that I loved in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I can accept that the laws that govern the making of good movies are different than those that govern the making of a good book. The science fiction aspects of Blade Runner were driven by music and imagery rather than by the psychological states of the characters. The interesting points made by Blade Runner can be found in the design and cinematography. My favorite part of Blade Runner is the way the character design of the replicants blurs the line between human and replicant in the way Dick blurred the line between human and android.
            Ridley Scott’s replicants appear in costumes ranging from completely normal to very strange, according to how human the character is. Rachel has a chic hairstyle that you might find in any other 80s movie while Pris Stratton’s hair looks like a cat that has been attacked by a straightener. Everything about Rachel is soft, while Pris wears black makeup and a studded collar. Rachel wears furry coats and business dresses while Roy Batty wears sharp black coats… or just his shorts when he’s feeling too much emotion. These costumes establish a gradient of humanity placing Rachel as the most human of the androids (which makes sense because she has always thought that she was human) and Pris and Roy as the least human. Had Pris and Roy looked less like albino punk rockers, the audience would have been better able to sympathize with their plight. After all, all humans struggle with the concept of mortality.

            I also enjoyed the way some of the humans’ costumes resembled technology. Hannibal Chew is the best example of this. When we see him in his lab, he is wearing an oversized fur coat that is attached to something (conceivably a heat source) with long tubes that look like wires. It’s almost as if he’s an android that is recharging itself. Tyrell also has the air of a robot about him. Half of the time, we can’t see his eyes because they are obscured by some of the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen. The light reflected by the lenses calls to mind the lights one might see in the eyes of a robot. These choices in character design provide us with the dehumanization of humans that we see in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Instead of mentioning inventions like mechanized religion and the Penfield mood organ, Ridley Scott shows us how humans have incorporated technology into themselves through analogy and costuming.