Saturday, July 11, 2015

How Aliens Turned Me Into a Biologist (and a Writer)

Classics like Star Wars and Foundation helped shape my love for science fiction, but one of my very first favorite works was neither movie nor novel. It was a little field guide, written like a birder's handbook, called Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials.

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:

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.

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:

Admittedly, it could use some color. But with the magnified insets of male octopus sex organs, and the text's mention of escape artistry and ink-squirting, science fact seems not so different from science fiction.

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.)

I think my tweenage self would be pleased.


  1. Haha!

    I read Midnight at the Well of Souls, though, and IMHO it's not worth your time.

  2. This is great! Despite the flaws you mention, there's some awesome stuff in your alien design. I love the drawing, and knowing that you've always been interested in tentacles!

    1. Yay, thanks! Tentacles are just so great.

      I think my tweenage self would be disappointed by how little time I now spend drawing; I hope to get back to it one of these days . . .

    2. That tween probably would not have fully appreciated the time commitment of double motherhood....


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