Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review - Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials by Wayne Douglas Barlowe, Ian Summers, and Beth Meacham

Short review: Drawings of aliens from dozens of works of science fiction ranging from well-known to obscure.

Aliens galore
In nice full-color panels
But lousy side text

Full review: A compilation of full color illustrations by Wayne Douglas Barlowe, Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials depicts fifty imagined aliens drawn from works of science fiction. The book was first published in 1979, and this edition was printed in 1987, so aliens drawn from more recent works won't be found in its pages. Even so, the books provides an interesting and enjoyable overview of the myriad forms of aliens that science fiction authors envisioned up until that point.

The basic format of the book consists of a two page layout describing and illustrating each alien. Most of the aliens are from fairly well known works of fiction, such as the Overlords from Childhood's End, the Puppeteers from Ringworld (and other books), or the Masters from The City of Gold and Lead, but there are several much more obscure examples from works that either were fairly obscure at the time, or have drifted into obscurity as time has passed. Each two-page spread lists the source work and author for the alien, gives a brief description giving its basic attributes, such as its physical characteristics, habitat, and culture, and a full page full color illustration. Most entries also have a couple of smaller illustration showing unusual or interesting characteristics of the alien in question.

All of the illustrations are well-done, depicting the various aliens with, from what I can tell, fair accuracy. The descriptive text that accompanies each set off illustrations is a little bland, for the most part simply relating the basic descriptions and attributes of the alien in question. In most cases, I think the descriptive text would have been substantially enhanced by the inclusion of a discussion how the alien being described fit into the source material, giving examples of specific characters who are members of the particular alien race, and maybe providing some quotes or very brief excerpts from the originating work. Including this sort of detail would have gone a long way towards making the aliens depicted come alive. As it is, the book is an amazing technical achievement of interpretive illustration, but most of the entries seem somewhat dry and distant.

With its superior illustrations depicting aliens that mostly could otherwise only be imagined based upon written descriptions, this illustrated guide is a very worthwhile addition to any science fiction fan's library. This recommendation comes with the caveat that each description is very dry, and gives limited context as to why the various aliens are interesting or why they were chosen for the book. Anyone who is not already familiar with Dune and its sequels will be unlikely to glean much useful information concerning why Guild Steersmen, for example, were chosen for inclusion by reading the entry for that particular extraterrestrial. I don't think it is surprising that the most evocative artwork in the book, in my opinion, is the set of pencil drawings found in the closing pages, which depict several of the aliens from the main body of the book engaged in various activities, but also shows the Thyfe, an alien of Barlowe's own invention interacting with an alien landscape of Barlowe's own design. That said, this book is an enjoyable resource that is sure to serve as a walk down memory lane for books one has already read, and possibly a spur to seek out new reading material for books one has not.

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