January 2003

AFTER MAN - A ZOOLOGY OF THE FUTURE
Dougal Dixon
Introduction by Desmond Morris
Illustrated by Divers Hands
St. Martin's Griffin
124 pages, paperback
Publication date 1998
$15.95

Wow. Talk about unique. After Man has no plot, no characters, no dialog - no story at all, in fact. The book purports to describe the animal life that has evolved on earth fifty million years from now, during the Posthomic period of the Cenozoic era. (And you thought H.G. Wells's time traveler went pretty far up the line.) It's a tour of the creatures that live in the planet's various environmental niches: temperate forests, the tundra, deserts, tropical grasslands, islands, and so on.

Human beings? The back of the author's Stapledonian hand to 'em. Humanity is dismissed in a short paragraph on page 32 that briefly describes the race's "inevitable extinction" as a result of overpopulation and failed infrastructure. With that, attention turns to the fauna of the world fifty million years hence.

Earth has long since healed itself after Man's depredations. Plate tectonics have changed the configurations of the continents. South America, for example, is now an island, while Australia has drifted northward to collide and merge with Asia. The land bridge between North America and Russia has been restored. Lemuria has made reappearance after the entire eastern coast of Africa split off from the mother continent.

Intelligence per se has not been allowed a second act on Earth, and the world is given over to various species that have evolved since Man's extinction.

The book begins with sections explaining current knowledge on evolutionary theory, including cell genetics, natural selection, animal behavior, form and development, and food chains -- thus providing a good underpinning for the extrapolations to come.

From there we move to sections devoted to the various environmental niches, beginning with temperate woodlands and grasslands. Each section is introduced with a scene-setting painting and a page of description and developmental history.

There follow several pages devoted to the dominant forms of animal life living in the habitat in question. In the case of the grasslands that would be the rabbucks, many graceful types of which have evolved to fill niches left vacant by the extinction of the ungulates. Preying on the rabbucks are several forms of predatory rats, the earth's principal carnivore group. These include the tiger-like ravene and the falanx, which hunts in packs like wolves.

The pages of After Man are filled with dozens of weird creatures. Some or more or less what one might expect; but some, like the blind, beaked, and long-eared truteal, a forest-floor dweller descended from shrews, defy easy description. I found myself poring over the remarkable pictures for long periods of time, letting my mind wander over possibilities.

Dixon fits all of his future fauna into the main branches of the Tree of Life. Interestingly, the bats have proliferated into a number of species including the bizarre and terrifying Night Stalker, which walks on legs that were once wings, and grasps its prey with hands that were once legs. Baboons have grown enormous and dinosaurian, stalking the plains like hairy allosaurs. Gorillas have changed into slender and graceful four-footed predators. The largest animal on earth is the vortex, an immense penguin-like creature that has taken the place of the whales.

I could go on and on, providing example after example, but really, you ought to go out and buy the thing. At least take a trip to the library to see if it's available there. The book is a lot of fun in addition to being solidly entertaining and even educational. And it is illustrated wonderfully well by Diz Wallis, John Butler, Brian McIntyre, Philip Hood, Roy Woodard and Gary Marsh. These artists all have some serious chops when it comes to representing animals. They even provide diagrams of teeth and skeletons in addition to studies and vignettes of the creatures in various settings. In truth, the book wouldn't be nearly as compelling as it is, despite its rigorously logical and cleverly written content, without the incredible visuals provided by the artists.

Endlessly inventive and delightful, After Man is nothing short of a tour-de-force. I haven't seen anything else quite like it.



Recent Raves:

Uncle Tungsten - Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings) has written a book that is not only a memoir of his childhood, but also a compelling and imaginative tour of the world of chemistry. He brings alive a young boy's fascination with the world around him and his dawning love for science. The book to get for the budding young scientist in your family, or even for yourself. Contains the best explanation of how the periodic table of the elements works that I have ever read. I don't think Sacks is capable of writing anything that is less than interesting and colorful. Vintage Paperbacks, September 2002. 338 pages.

Cinefex - This fascinating magazine gives you the whole behind-the-scenes technical story about popular movies. And I do mean all of it. The current issue - number 92 - has Gollum from The Two Towers on the cover. Inside are three articles - just three, yes, but the depth! The breadth! - about Spy Kids II, XXX, and The Two Towers. Well-written, with interviews of many members of the technical crews for the shows. Go to the Cinefex web site for a piquant sample of articles, as well as TOCs and covers for all the back issues. http://www.cinefex.com/home.html My favorite back issue (which I own) is solely given over to the 1932 production of King Kong. Cinefex is impeccably produced on gorgeous plate stock to show off the photography.

Deep Cold -- http://www.deepcold.com/index.html - I don't usually review web sites in this space, but this one has me reconsidering that. It's absolutely everything a good web site should be: concise, interesting, and beautifully designed. Subtitled Secrets of the Cold War in Space: 1959 - 1969, the site is devoted to Soviet-era Russian and American space-based weapons and orbital vehicles that were never built. Its proprietor is Dan Roam, who really knows his stuff. Come on, it's just a click away from here. A little graphics-heavy, but take my word for it, you're in for a real treat if you visit.