Although I had read precious few of the original stories Barlowe drew from, I was captivated by the meticulous illustrations and otherworldly descriptions. Parasitic males! Glowing skin! Brains in feet!
But I misplaced my childhood copy of Barlowe's Guide some years ago, and had nearly forgotten about it when the Interstellar Day of Science and Story rolled around. The wonderful people behind National Novel Writing Month introduced the hashtag #ScienceIsStory and asked: "Which story made you fall in love with the potential of science fiction?"
And I answered:
Memory suddenly ablaze, I got myself another copy, and turned to the pages I recalled most fondly:It was Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials that fired me up as a kid. Each alien with its own bizarre biological story! #ScienceIsStory— Danna Staaf (@DannaStaaf) May 8, 2015
I've still never read the source material--Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack L. Chalker. (I probably should.) But even without narrative context, I loved the idea of a "mobile plant intelligence" that "takes root" at night. And Barlowe's Gumby-like interpretation tickled all my cute receptors.
Thus inspired, I spent much of my youth inventing new alien species--drawing them, imagining their life cycles and habitats. This is best example I could find in my files:
Let us take a moment to forgive my tweenage self for--in order of appearance--a) inventing a needlessly confusing plural form, b) subject/verb disagreement, c) using "race" instead of "species," d) failure to understand basic population dynamics, and e) treating "male" as "default."
I had a lot of learning to do. Luckily, my fascination with aliens took me by the hand and led right into my education.
Marine biology was, in fact, the natural next step for a sci-fi kid like me. I wasn't the kind that really wanted to be an astronaut, to go into space for its own sake. (Although I do think space is cool.) I just wanted to go to other planets to meet aliens, and it turned out to be more practical to simply step into the ocean.I loved drawing aliens and inventing their weird biology. Then I met an octopus, and realized "aliens" live here on Earth. #ScienceIsStory— Danna Staaf (@DannaStaaf) May 8, 2015
Parasitic males, glowing skin, brains in feet? Check, check, and check!
So I became a marine biologist, and made a small contribution to the nonfiction equivalent of Barlowe's Guide. Here's the first page of the cephalopod chapter in The Light and Smith Manual: Intertidal Invertebrates from Central California to Oregon:
This co-authored chapter was my first scientific publication, and I went on to spend six years investigating the bizarre life histories of squid. I also taught invertebrate zoology, formally and informally, to audiences from 8 to 80. The outreach suited me better than the research, so I metamorphosed into a writer of popular science . . . and science fiction.
I don't make up aliens from scratch anymore--I know too much. Now I just play with the very real, very strange biology all around us. (I also try to be more aware of race and gender issues, and am somewhat kinder to the English language.)So my love of aliens turned me into a marine biologist, and now my knowledge of biology fuels my science fiction. Pleasing! #ScienceIsStory— Danna Staaf (@DannaStaaf) May 8, 2015
I think my tweenage self would be pleased.