?To employ an old clich?, sci-fi/fantasy illustrator Wayne Barlowe is one of those people whose work you probably know even if you think you don’t. His character designs have appeared in films from Hellboy to Avatar and he continues to find big meaty projects to work on to this day. However, I first became aware of him due to a little book my stepdad had called Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. Originally published in 1979, this was the 21-year-old Barlowe’s first collection, which he collaborated on with Ian Summers and Beth Meacham. If you’ve never seen this, it is essential you hunt down a copy this instant. It is essential, period, not only as a bathroom book for those with a permanent ’70s nerd boner but anyone with an interest in fantasy concept art. Anyone with eyes, really, if I may speak objectively.
The basic conceit of this book is a mock nature guide-type publication, only instead of birds or cats or something it’s about alien creatures from science-fiction books and short stories. I’ll go ahead and admit that I haven’t actually read any of the works these characters hail from, though I’m familiar with most of the authors, and you probably are too (particularly Harry Harrison, Frederick Pohl, and a few of the heavyweights like Asimov, Heinlein and LeGuin). There’s even an entry on Solaris, though it’s not going on this list because it’s just a drawing of a planet, albeit a very pretty one. So what other fantastical otherworldly renderings rank among Barlowe’s best? Just give this page a friendly read and the next time your friends start talking about how brilliantly designed the Na’avi were, you can scoff and say “Oh YEAH? Have you SEEN the Czill?” and then your friends will stop hanging out with you and you can get back to masturbating. On a related note, we should all bow our heads and thank the nerd gods that Mr. Barlowe isn’t an FFF fan.
10) The Czill
?I have to say, my affection for this one comes as much from the expression on its big ol’ face as from the design. “What?” it seems to be saying in mid-shrug. “What did I do?” The Czil’s whole leafy motif may tip you off to the fact that it is, in fact, sentient vegetable matter with brains in the feet. This particular specimen seems to currently be in the sleep state in which the Czill apparently take root wherever they are and enter a trance until morning. However, they have no eyelids, which means that even when they’re fully aware, they’ll always look as if they’re staring at you, and they could totally fake you out and convince you they were asleep if they didn’t really want to talk to you. Basically, this is a whole race of the creepiest living lawn ornaments imaginable. And they reproduce asexually, which means if you see one you’ll soon see a whole crop of them. I wonder what they taste like? I mean, if you stew them or something.
9) The Riim
?For some reason, there seems to be something very ’60s go-go girl about this design. Maybe it’s just the design on the dress/tunic this particularly wary-looking Riim seems to be wearing. I have to thank the Riim for introducing me to the term “parthenogenic”, which doesn’t mean “clones burst out of your stomach” but follows some of the same general principles. I like this one for the strong clashes in color, the black and yellow and red and blue. In fact, if you stare at it and unfocus your eyes, it almost looks like a lanky chocolate bar. And unlike most of these drawings, the Riim portrait gives us a specific emotion to go along with its creature. I can’t really tell you what the Czill is thinking, but this one definitely looks like it’s about to use its mind powers to summon the rest of its winged brethren to attack you. Which it can do, by the way.
8) The Thrint
?It’s not fair! I want a Thrint action figure for my birthday! Though it looks like something that once did battle with the Ninja Turtles, the Thrint are yet another example of a race that as intelligent as it was powerful. Much of their tendency for dominance stemmed from their telepathic abilities, which allowed them to subdue other species and form an empire until said other species decided to fight back, eventually wiping out practically all Thrint. Good on those guys: I’d be very hesitant to pick a fight with something that had a mouth as long as my arm. I know the curl of the toes probably signifies a claw but I can’t help but think of it as an elf-like boot. Those things can’t have been easy to walk in. And if they did have claws or something that to fit in those shoes, they must have taken forever to put on and take off, unless this is one of those body-melded-into-the-suit deals. I really like the glint of the scales. Oh, and the tentacle-beard is fully articulated, in case you were wondering, which makes this being that much more menacing.
7) The Medusan
?Who’s afraid of the giant green jellyfish? Well, if it floats through the air and is roughly six meters around, I’d say most of us. The green wrinkles and transparency of the Medusan’s body are what make this another Barlowe winner, but the guide entry doesn’t describe them as particularly malevolent, although they are conquerors of planets interested in mining resources. How you can mine or build cities with thin tendrils instead of arms is a question I’d never consider asking if I ever actually met one of these guys, especially if there was a Thrint in the corner giggling and ready to ask me questions.
6) The Uchjinian
?Now, you’re probably thinking “Hey! That’s just a blob! It actually kind of looks like a chair from the ’60s without legs!” And you’re right — kind of. I mean, I could argue that it’s ACTUALLY a highly intelligent lifeform that just happens to be non-carbon based and “shaped like an extremely pliable smear of matter”. But a hyper-intelligent smear is still a smear. As such, you might wonder how I could consider this to be one of the best visualizations in the book when there are so many others that have more detail and sophistication. And to that I say: think about what Barlowe had to work with. He was given one of the vaguest concepts for a physical being you could imagine (there are some even vaguer) and depicted something I could still actually imagine encountering, though I don’t know that we’d have much to say to each other. Also, the atmosphere of their home planet is mostly helium, so whatever I said would probably be very high-pitched and squeaky.
5) The Merseian
?You can have your space jellyfish and be-tendriled beasts: sometimes there are few things more awesome than a swashbuckling dinosaur-man like the Merseian from Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry series. The tail is certainly the most striking physical feature of this race, which uses it both as a weapon in combat and a crutch for resting on and sneering smugly at you. As the style of dress and armaments may suggest, Merseian culture is very class-based and aristocratic, or so says the Guide. Judging from the diagrams included, these guys are a lot more intimidating when they’re standing, although they could be tilted ass-up and I’d still be terrified. Probably much more terrified, actually.
4) The Ixchel
?These beings from A Wrinkle in Time are supposed to be benevolent, but they come across as undeniably spooky in Barlowe’s version. Anticipating his later renderings of demons, we get the freaky tendril hands and, most unsettling of all, the slanted eye-sockets and smooth face. I don’t mean to harp on feet again (I swear I don’t have an alien foot fetish) but my eye is especially drawn to the fucked-up hooves/feet, which look like they’ve been melted. Really, you could consider this a failure, since nothing about this really suggests comfort or gentleness at all. But it’s definitely alien, and I suppose that’s more important than any emotional reading you may project onto it. It also kind of reminds me of a macabre version of those big windsock puppets used car salesmen use. That’s nobody’s fault but mine.
3) The Pnume
?Ah, the Pnume. To paraphrase the Eleventh Doctor, love a good Pnume. In Jack Vance’s novel, shockingly titled The Pnume, they are a race of mysterious overlord beings who get their rocks off imprisoning and tormenting foreign visitors, especially humans. But while most pictures of them seem to focus on their shadowy nature or make them look all grim and foreboding, Barlowe’s portrait looks like something you might find on an Eagles’ album cover. That’s not a bad thing, and indeed, the vaguely southwestern garment and batlike, jagged hat does give this Pnume some mystery, though as with most aliens, I’m mainly worried about where this thing’s genitals are. If there’s nothing under that poncho and a stiff breeze kicks up than I definitely don’t want to be alone in A Room with a Pnume (which is coincidentally not the title of Jack Vance’s spin-off children’s book about the character, but it should be. If anyone’s interested in contacting Vance and pitching that idea, you know where to find me).
2) The Garnishee
?Look out! A giant crab-carrot with tentacle hair and (at least) five anuses! As a general rule, any drawing that makes me fear for my safety has to net some points in the visceral reaction department, and Barlowe’s Garnishee does that in spades. Once again, we have a species with its brains in located in its feet, which makes it seem like a good stomp would be all you need to do away with them if they got hostile, but I wouldn’t want to get anywhere near those claws to begin with. Actually, the Garnishee are not monsters but intelligent, advanced and ancient with their own culture and religious beliefs. Also they get high off of eating glass. Somehow that’s the least weird thing about this race, and probably the only thing about it that won’t burn itself into your brain. I’d be really surprised if something like this didn’t show up in a hentai somewhere, although maybe only in a non-erotic capacity. There’s more to the Garnishee than its potential for tentacle-infused sexual nightmares, you know. And yes, I fear that name is indeed the food-related pun you think it is, although I can’t prove it.
1) The Polarian
?Leave it to an imp like Xanth creator Piers Anthony to come up with the Polarians (this being the same man who once wrote a novel called The Color of Her Panties. I’m not kidding). These creatures are once again highly intelligent despite their… uh… streamlined appearance, and they can convey a highly sophisticated range of emotional states in the changing color of their skin. Barlowe did a great job on this one, especially in the textures and light of the different areas of this guy’s body. But of more interest to the perverted writers of this Guide (and presumably Anthony himself) is this race’s curious mating pattern. Basically, the male pops out his “wheel” and latches on to the female’s; when all is finished, the two of them release the shared wheel, which quickly becomes a Polarian child. The female replaces the wheel with her communication ball from her eyestalk-thing, and the male gives her his ball (yeah, yeah, laugh it up) and remains unable to communicate until he can grow a new one. If this sounds dry and technical, you should really see the helpful diagram included, unless you’re one of those pompous holier-than-thou jerks who has some sort of problem with watching aliens fuck. Enjoy your life inside the box, you bourgeois androids: I say you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Polarian release his wheel. I wonder what happens if someone steals it…