Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Humans Are Dead, But There Are Jackalopes Now! Let's Read _After Man_!

Of course, now he just reminds me of Zubat.
I'll warn you right away, my nostalgia filter may be strong with this one. Indeed, you may run into many science fiction fans / armchair biologists / creature designers / ect. around my age whose young minds were permanently blown by Dougal Dixon's After Man. The New Dinosaurs, in hindsight,
might actually be better, but I find it very hard to have many bad things to say about After Man and it's various creatures. As the delightfully named Caustic Cover Critic
says, the book is "deeply odd and quite fascinating."
After Man
was first published in 1981 (and the creatures were likely invented well before that, so take the science with a grain of salt), but I first learned about it through one of the Museum of Science's stranger traveling exhibitions. It was called "Future Zoo" and it was essentially a walk-through version of the book, with paintings on display, sculptures and animations of the animals, and even a robotic Desert Leaper (a la those wonderful traveling robotic dinosaur exhibits). Sadly, there does not appear to be any information about it online, so I have to go by my foggy memories. The exhibit was really the first work of hard science fiction that spoke to me as a child, and once I learned there was a book I HAD to have it.
Flash-forward nearly
ten, maybe even fifteen years to the frabjous day when I spot this, totally randomly, in a random gift shop:
I was born a sexually dimorphic unicorn.
Now of course I bought this on the spot. All told, I've only seen two copies of this book in person. Sadly, they were both incredibly cheaply bound softcovers. Before I start giving you the tour through the book and post more pictures, I need to show you what condition my copy is in now:
What condition my condition is in.
Illustration by Gary Marsh. Talk about loved to death. Long out of print, Dixon's books are notoriously hard to find nowadays and known copies tend to be expensive. Here's the Amazon link if you'd like to try your luck.
Anyway, the introduction of the book serves mainly as a refresher course of basic evolutionary biology. It also reminds us that many of the animals around today had ancestors that would be completely unrecognizable to us.
This will prove to be foreshadowing, as the world in
After Man is one that had been long ago inherited by the meek. As the title suggests, the humans are dead. So are all the other animals human-sized and larger. The world is very different now, after all the large animals went extinct fifty-millions years ago in the early 1980's.
This kind of thing comes with the territory of setting a book in the future. Just go with it.
But with that said, you have to remind yourself what most science fiction dealing with future evolution was like prior to
After Man. Typical scenarios include things like, "humans will keep getting smarter and smarter but they will also have terrible powers and be evil!" "There will be all kinds of giant monsters with big teeth and claws and blah!" And the good old chestnut, "radiation will cause normally innocuous animals to mutate and try to kill everyone!" Come to think of it, that last one is still around in full force; just replace "radiation" with "genetic engineering" (or, frankly, "writers who failed biology").
That's why
After Man was so refreshing. It was also the first time many of us saw imagined animals treated with utmost respect and painted as if they were real. Here's one of the first illustrations in the book, introducing two major groups of future animals, the Rabbuck and Predator Rats, and it's still awesome:
This is how you do it.
Illustration by Diz Wallace, affectionately parodied here. This is how you illustrate creatures that don't exist. (Though it is a huge missed opportunity that the Rabbucks are not actually called jackalopes.) I wouldn't be surprised to see this exact scene in a real Victorian-era natural history book.
This is also how you do it.
Illustration by Philip Hood. We've met two of the three major groups of animals in the previous illustration (the Rabbucks are large deer-like animals descended from rabbits and the Predator Rats are... exactly what it sounds like.) These Hornheads are in the third group, the Gigantelopes. Only the very small hoofed mammals like caprids survived into the future. I just like these guys because I have a soft spot for moose, sheep, and hadrosaurs.
Fat rolls!
Illustration by Philip Hood. Here's the lovely Desert Leaper, essentially a gigantic jerboa who has filled the niche left wide open by the camels. For those of you playing the Dougal Dixon drinking game, note that this guy is one of maybe three animals in the book that displays (ahem)...
Dixon Drinking Game!
Now let's meet the fellow alluded to in the beginning, Nightmare Fuel on Legs the Night Stalker, a predatory flightless bat.
Nightmare Fuel on legs.
Illustration by Diz Wallace. This illustration found it's way into several other sci-fi books and (subconsciously at least) into a number of character designs.
Gosh, this is already getting to be longer than I expected. Let's stop here and meet more of the animals in Part Two.
And here's the old Tetrapod Zoology post that got me thinking about Dixon's books again.
And, hey, it's Banned Books Week! I'm sure After Man has been challenged at one point or other. Or it would be if it were less obscure - which is one of the things about the Challenged Book List that gets me. (It seems a book isn't controversial until it gets popular or attention in the mainstream media. Note that it took a while for His Dark Materials to crack the top ten.)
And for the love of Benji, people. They're PENGUINS. (But I'm suddenly curious to know how, exactly, these penguins are also "anti-ethnic". WTF?!)

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