The After Man trilogy and The Future Is Wild might be the most well-known Earth-based works of speculative evolution, but for extraterrestrial life one of the most famous names is the American artist Wayne Douglas Barlowe.
Starting off illustrating the covers of science fiction novels, his first major project was Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials in 1979. Depicting alien species from various works of sci-fi in the format of a biological field guide, attempting to make them all look like real believable lifeforms, this book was a huge success at the time and eventually had a fantasy-themed sequel in 1996, Barlowe’s Guide to Fantasy.
But it was his 1990 book Expedition that helped define the alien side of the modern speculative evolution movement. Presented as a collection of field notes, journal entries, and paintings in his distinctive style, it chronicles a human crew’s visit to the planet Darwin IV in the year 2358, encountering a wide variety of strange organisms and trying to avoid having any lasting impact on the natural environment of this sometimes deadly planet. Some parts of the Darwinian species’ anatomy resembles Earth tetrapods, taking particular inspiration from the 20th century “alien prehistoric world” trope, but other elements are very different – all the animals appear to lack eyes, mostly sensing their surroundings using sonar and infrared receptor pits, there are no true jaws but instead various hollow proboscis “tongues”, there are flying forms using biological jet propulsion, and some species reach absolutely gigantic sizes compared to Earth life.
Expedition was adapted into a television documentary titled Alien Planet in 2005. Originally conceived as a nature film with little to no narration, the final product was more of a dramatization interspersed with interviews with various scientists and sci-fi filmmakers. Instead of a human presence on the planet, here the biological surveying is performed by autonomous drone-like probes with basic artificial intelligence.
Barlowe has also been involved in concept art for films, television shows, and videogames, with spec-evo relevant projects including the early design work for the creatures of Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar, and the Barsoomian inhabitants of Mars in John Carter.
After being long out of print, a new edition of Expedition is due out this year (2020) from Echo Point Books: https://www.echopointbooks.com/art/expedition
Next week: more speculative dinosaurs!