EXPEDITION: Being An Account In Words And Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage to Darwin IV
By Wayne Douglas Barlowe
Workman Publishing (Jan 1991)
$29.95 cloth, $18.95 paper, 192 pages, illus

Audacity counts, both when considering the products of imagination and the marketing of products. Wayne Barlowe and Workman Publishing win points and praise on both counts with Expedition, a lavish and surprisingly successful experiment in presenting art as fiction and fiction as fact.

Expedition takes as its inspiration naturalist Charles Darwin’s voyages of discovery aboard the the H.M.S. Beagle, which led to his 1858 paper on the theory of natural selection. With beguiling earnestness, Expedition invites us join Barlowe on a 500th anniversary star voyage to a spectacular inhabited planet orbiting a nearby star.

The book is presented as Barlowe’s personal journal of his months exploring Darwin IV, complete with more than a hundred sketches and maps, as well as dozens of full-color paintings. Traveling more than 300,000 miles in a one-man observation pod, Barlowe “observed” an exotic array of unearthly creatures, from the imposing Emperor Sea Strider to the extraordinary Flipstick. He recounts his discoveries in a quaint but eminently readable combination of Victorian narrative and modern tech-speak.

Workman Publishing has followed through on Barlowe’s creative deception with a handsome oversize volume which preserves the fiction of nonfiction in every respect save for the copyright date. Even behind the scenes, in the world of the review copy and the promotional package, Workman hews to the party line: not only is the reviewer’s cover letter dated January 4, 2367, but the publicity photo of Barlowe shows him wearing a Darwin IV mission cap.

By itself, such an effort says nothing about the quality of Expedition — but it does testify to the fact that it was not only created but published with both love and playful good humor. And in this case, the evident commitment has produced an entertaining and educational future fantasy.

Barlowe has ventured down this road before as the artist-author of the 1979 “field handbook” Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, which presented an array of aliens created by science fiction’s most notable authors. But Expedition also recalls Dougal Dixon’s memorable After Man, which considered in occasionally sobering fashion the far-future evolution of life on earth.

In the introduction to Expedition, Barlowe credits his love of natural history to his great-grandfather’s “vivid tales of the creatures which once roamed freely all over our world.” He makes clear that Darwin IV is the 24th Century’s Africa, an exotic world of living wonders, and bemoans the destruction of Earth’s wild ecologies as a tragedy.

In that light, we have no choice but to join and applaud Barlowe in his defiance of reality — for it would be a greater tragedy if time proves all the Darwin IV’s of our imagination to be no more than fantasy, and shows that we have savaged the only living world that ever was.

— Michael P. Kube-McDowell is the author of seven science fiction novels, including The Quiet Pools, which will be reprinted as a March, 1991 paperback by Ace.