A couple of the more exciting book stumbles I’ve enjoyed recently are Geologist Dougal Dixon’s “zoology of the future,” After Man (1981), and its “anthropology of the future” sequel, Man After Man (1990).
After Man is a credible paleontology/speculative fiction bonanza that runs on the sober premise that our era is over. The end wasn’t dramatic or sudden or particularly sad, it was just the culmination of humanity’s long-brewing bad habits. We blew it and died and took a lot of animals with us.
But not all the animals. Those that survived kept evolving, and now we’re visiting them 50 million years after the Age of Man. The book skips around to various ecosystems–jungle, desert, plains–and shows artist renderings of what the animals there have adapted into, with captions explaining why.
For instance, rabbits have grown to fill in the niche deer left in their extinction and rats have grown to fill the wolf niche.
Monkeys have learned to swim:
And here’s a cuddly hell-spawn called a night stalker:
If I remember right (the book is back at the library), the night stalker evolved from the bat, outgrew eyes, grew big fangs and claws, and turned its wings into ears.
You’ve got to wonder if some of these creatures began in the author’s nightmares, if he worked backward to make them plausible. I wouldn’t fault him for it.
What this “picture book for grown-ups” did for me was remind me that our planet’s real timeline isn’t one of human history, but of its own history. And if you look at pictures of dinosaurs while consciously turning off the part of your brain that goes, “yeah, yeah, dinosaurs,” another voice goes, “holy shit, there were dinosaurs on the earth.” Like many true things, it sounds dumb when you put it into words. In this light, After Man starts to look less like sci-fi entertainment (“What if it was like this?”) and more like a speculative science (“It could go kinda like this”).
So why didn’t this book, now 30 years old, spawn a new genre? A science fiction with an emphasis on the science minus plot or characters? A literature of Darwinian curiosity?
Well, it did spawn a bad British TV show called “The Future is Wild,” a 2003 CGI mess without a high enough budget to be entertaining or a low enough budget to be campy.
In a new potential future, humanity has run out of resources so it relies on genetic engineering to create sea humans, robot humans (like the heads in jars on Futurama), and space humans (who can venture outside the spaceship to do repair work without a suit) to adapt to the new challenges of life on Earth, and then sends classic humans out to colonize other planets.
With most of the classic humans gone, genetic engineering goes forgotten and the engineered tribes of humans live in competition with one another. (See? Less intuitive than “animals kept adapting”). Also, there are a lot of groany flash fictions of what it’s like to live in that time and place. As in After Man, the real fun here is in the pictures and captions; and Dixon’s a way better creature creator than he is a fiction writer.
Then comes the twist ending. Five million years later, the ancestors of the humans who colonized space come back and take over Earth. They don’t know it’s their home planet, though, and they ravage the place into submission within a hundred years, but not before engineering the locals into food giants:
This last drawing is most depressing and rings truest: Millions of years in the future, human ancestors make meat farms out of other human ancestors. Even if the second book’s premise is a bit more strained, Dixon pulled off a neat trick: An initially sunnier premise (“We found a way to make it! Humanity persists!”) begets a world much more nightmarish than one in which we’ve been wiped out.
So would it be misanthropic of me to choose Future World A with the giant rabbits over Future World B where we’re shaving gyro meat off our brothers’ backs? In a classroom, here’s where I’d explain to students that the question I’ve just posed is a great example of the “either/or fallacy” in which two options are presented as if they’re the only two options, when really there are many possibilities for the long-term future of our species. Then I’d pray I’m right.