I'm not a terribly visual person. But I, like many of us who wallow in science fiction, have a thing for the alien vista, hell, for the alien: worlds with green skies, or two suns, frog creatures with eyes on stalks, or sixteen arms with pincers at the end, pure energy, hobbits, what have you. It's a puzzle to work out, how they would move, what kind of environment could create them, how biology would affect the character of an alien species. Not all SF does this well (did I even have to say this?) but it's a joy when an author depicts another species so compellingly that you're shocked by the human, like I was by the end of The Left Hand of Darkness
In the introduction of this book, Robert Silverberg, himself the architect of dozens of different worlds and distant vistas, bellyaches about the tendency of the cover artists to get everything wrong, putting hair where the scales should be, or giving the alien fifteen arms instead of tank treads or whatever. He'd always just assumed artists were stupid, until he figured out that most artists were drawing to deadline, with maybe a paragraph of information about the story itself. They were journeymen artists, cranking it out for a living, and creating some pretty compelling shit despite the time constraints and the lack of information.
In this book, Barlowe goes through and fleshes out 50 alien life-forms, with diligence and thoughtfulness. Because, as we all know from Star Trek, the universe is more populated than Manhattan, Barlowe and Co tried to narrow the field to extraterrestrials who had been “logically and scientifically conceived.” They tried to choose aliens that had rarely been pictured before. They dismissed aliens that lurk in our own solar system.
Now, I'm a huge sucker for the imaginary field guide or the fictional dictionary. Hell, I'm a sucker for reading the actual dictionary.
But I really love that the nature of fiction is such that you can create a body of facts, of events, that can be rearranged like cards and divined like tarot. The facts of the story escape and create worlds of their own, in the mind of the reader. The events can be cataloged like butterflies pinned onto a screen, but you have to catch the butterflies first. And put the pins in.
I didn't mean to get all “we murder to dissect” there, but my metaphors got away from me again. That's what they do best, and this is exactly why J K Rowling sucks for suing the guy who made the encyclopedia of the Potterverse. There's a transmutation that occurs between the word and the mind, and you don't own my freaking mind, lady. Don't even get me started about fair use. And don't sue your fanboys. Sheesh. (Richard doesn't like that the encyclopedia guy used information collated by online contributors without giving them any compensation, but that's not why she sued him. But how would you feel if the GR overlords, and I for one welcome our GR overlords, printed your reviews without compensation? This is totally off the point, again; must read GR TOU.)
So this book is the chronicle of the transmutation that occurred between Barlowe's mind and the image, mediated by a bunch of SF from the 60s and 70s, mostly. It was published in 1979, and the art, fonts and layout have a lovely, dated feel. Of the 50 aliens listed, I was only familiar with 8, which is something, considering most of these books were written before I was born. Whether that something is that I am a giant nerd, or that I am totally rad and fun at parties is a matter of debate. I opt for the later.
I'll quibble a bit about the aliens I was familiar with, just to be a drag. But creating images out of words has always been a losing proposition; we readers are all acutely familiar with the frustrations of the movie adaption. The images conjured in our minds are idiosyncratic, personal, and both more and less real than any picture. He didn't look like that! So: the devil guys in Childhood's End
looked more like devils, and were less blocky in my mind. I'm not sure Lovecraft's “Old One” even constitutes an alien, per se; same goes for the Guild Steersman from Dune
. But I really liked the Gowachin from Herbert's The Dosadi Experiment
, and I thought the green primate fellows from Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest
were spot on.
The best part of the book, for me, was the back section that printed Barlowe's sketches, which are more in tune with the current, manuscript-like, Alan Lee-ish sensibilities of contemporary SFF art. I liked the way you could feel him working out the movement, the anatomy, the clothing. It makes the body of the “official” images look a little static, like they are held in place by pins. Aha! I knew that metaphor was going somewhere.