Advance Review: Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes

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9781476730356Although there are not quite ten million animals presented in the book, Barnes has gathered together a dizzying array of creatures for his essays in Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom which covers everything from the microscopic to the very large.

Drawing on his own travels and quoting from a wide array of literary sources, Simon Barnes dazzles his reader with the variety and strangeness of life on this planet: We don’t need to go to outer space to find aliens. There is plenty of weird and wonderful life right here on earth.

Barnes writes elegantly crafted essays, full of quotations and references to an impressive grab-bag of literature: Works by James Joyce show up frequently, but so, too, do references to C. S. Lewis (especially The Silver Chair). Ian Fleming also makes an appearance, as do the Modesty Blaise novels. The hold that these “aliens” have on us, their influence on our thought and use in metaphor is abundantly clear.

As chapter titles like “Sex and the single slug,” “The Lion, the glitch, and the glove compartment,” and “That’s no parasite: that’s my husband” indicate, the essays are often also humorous as well as accurate. Laughter and wonder are often paired, and Barnes’ titles and essays show this.

Barnes has many good points to make about the variety of life, the need to preserve and respect it, and the wonder we all share. However, does not fully trust his readers to grasp his meaning and so through his presentation and frequently repeats his major points which can be grating if too many essays are read at once.

Structurally, the book could do with more pictures: The existing line drawings by nathanburtondesign.com have an elegant simplicity, but there are too few of them. When Banes talks about the caecilians, amphibians that more like worms than frogs, live under the earth, and come in a variety of colors, I want to see it. It is possible, of course, to read while keeping a search engine on hand for image-hunting, but this depends on the reader being the sort of person who looks words up in the dictionary right away rather than the sort who makes mental notes for later reference.

Overall, Ten Million Aliens is a great appetizer: Barnes writes essays intended to leave the reader hungry to know more about each animal, looking to see more and to read more. After all, Barnes tells his readers all about the slugs’ mating dance—but leaves only a teasing reference to the shelled slugs. It’s up to us to learn more.

Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom comes out February 17, 2015.

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