So about this writing idea . . .
One of my favorite books is Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition: Being an Account in Words and Artwork of the 2358 AD Voyage to Darwin IV (Workman Publishing, 1990). Anyone who hasn’t read this book is missing a treat – along with a fascinating tale about exploration and science. Expedition is primarily an art book, as the narrative is pretty simple: This is the report of one artist/scientist who documented lifeforms on a distant planet called Darwin IV. While there, he encounters various creatures and fauna while mapping out this strange and bizarre place. If it sounds remotely familiar, it’s because the book was the basis of the 2009 Discovery Channel program, Alien Planet. (So much is different in the film, however, that the two might as well be considered separate entities.)
The thing that Barlowe did that I absolutely loved was the idea of the first person narrative regarding his exploration. Granted, he wasn’t the first to do what he did: At the very least, he owes some of his treatment to nature documentaries (for some odd reason, I was reminded of Wild Kingdom as I read some of his “observations”). But I can’t recall having such a technique used in a science fiction work, nor one that had been used to create such a vibrant, living world inhabited by such exotic and bizarre creatures.
That vibrant world is the result of Barlowe’s wonderful paintings. Whether dealing with landscapes or creatures, Barlowe’s art is simply magnificent. His denizens of Darwin IV are unique in that none of them have eyes – they function and communicate via sonar. Better still, Barlowe is a man after my own heart – he apparently hates unnecessary appendages, horns, claws, and teeth. A basic rule of biology is that organisms are rarely equipped with things that they do not need. So there are no creatures with six arms or a thousand razor-sharp fangs. Each creature present seems to have some sort of logic behind their existence, and that’s great by me.
There are gaps, to be certain – Barlowe didn’t discuss any alien insect life or any substantial alien sea life, and the fauna and vegetation were discussed only insofar as they affected the various lifeforms that roamed Darwin IV. To be fair, this was neither a planetary study nor travelogue. But it is such an impressive work that still holds its own a quarter of a century later. I really enjoy it.
With that said, I’ve toyed with the idea of doing something similar – a “record” of an exo-planet and it’s (possible) inhabitants. Unlike Barlowe, I’d want to focus on the whole world, so my explorer(s) would be interested in virtually everything. I doubt that I’d publish it (for a host of reasons), but it seems like it’d be a fun project to undertake. It’s one thing to imagine an environment, but an entire planet?