When I was a kid, I came across a fantastic book: Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. It was an art book that depicted a number of well-known aliens from across science fiction literature. There were energy beings, creatures short and tall, of all types of colors and shapes. The book has been a staple in the science fiction community, illustrating the aliens that have largely existed as words on a page.
Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials was illustrated by Wayne Barlowe. Born on January 6th, 1958 to a pair of natural history illustrators, Barlowe was immersed in art from a young age. “They both spent their professional lives working on innumerable nature-related projects,” Barlowe explained, “among them field guides. That sensibility – the need to be biologically aware and accurate – worked its way into my mindset.”
In addition to drawing as a child, he was introduced to genre fiction by his father, who bought him copies of science fiction and fantasy novels. Drawn to authors such as Robert Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs and works such as Solaris and Dune, he amassed a small library: thousands of books that he picked up from used bookstores and book fairs. “I loved the imaginative journeys I took between the pages of speculative fiction novels. It was great escapism and fodder for my young imagination.”
He eventually went to art school, and made his way into illustrating the covers for the science fiction novels he loved as a kid. Early in his career, David G. Hartwell, the editor of Berkley Books’ science fiction line, as well as Cosmo Magazine, began using him for art in the magazine and later for the paperbacks. “Eventually, I branched out and worked for nearly every major publishing house in NYC,” Barlowe said. “For a time, I loved it. I saw my work in bookstores and, given my love of books and especially SF and F books, it was a heady form of wish fulfillment.”
While working as an illustrator, he met Ian Summers, the art director for Ballantine Books. Barlowe had an idea that had been percolating: an art book that depicted many of the aliens from SFF books. Many of the aliens that he had read about never made it to the front covers, and when they did, he found that they never quite matched up with the books, something that irked him. When he began working on a cover, “I read every manuscript that was handed to me. I’m something of a literalist when it comes to depicting other people’s vision. I dote on the written word.”
He mentioned the idea to his parents, who encouraged him to put together a sample. “I picked an alien – the Thrint, did a single painting of him a la a typical guide plate and typed up a one sheet proposal. I went to Ian and he was impressed enough to take it to Workman Publishing. Shortly afterwards, to my 21 year old amazement, I had a contract.”
With the proposal approved, he worked with Beth Meacham (who would later become a prominent editor at Tor) and came up with a list of aliens to begin working on. Barlowe set out a strict criteria: “First, I didn’t want to repeat forms or types. And so, I was careful to pick what I felt was the best representative of each major type of alien – exoskeletal, cat-like, octopoid, etc. Second, I realized very quickly that many authors, despite being famous, did not always visualize their creations and would simply put down words if they sounded or looked good on paper. I can’t really blame them. Words can be seductive. But if you’re going to convince people, visual or otherwise, I think you need to make sure the thing you’re creating could actually work. I’d say for every creature in the Guide five were rejected for these reasons. And, third, some consideration was given to the importance of the work and the time spectrum. I did not want to limit the book to solely contemporary works and so some older creatures can be found in its pages.”
Once they had a group of candidates, he began sketching them out. “Almost every alien was completed by the day’s end.” He approached the aliens as though they were real, working off of real-world analogs when possible.
Once the book was completed and released in 1979, it was a huge success: Barlowe was sent off on a 15 city tour of the country and earned nominations for an American Book Award, as well as nods for the Hugo and Locus awards. With the success of the art book, he turned to fantasy, with the idea of putting together an entire series of illustrated guides. While a longer line never materialized, he eventually published Barlowe’s Guide to Fantasy, which came out in 1996.
Barlowe continued to provide artwork for book covers and magazines, but eventually decided that he wanted to write his own novel, which he eventually published in 2007, God’s Demon. Fittingly, it featured a cover that he illustrated himself.