Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Man After Man - An Anthropology of the Future

Dougal Dixon & Philip Hood
Man After Man - An Anthropology of the Future (1990)

Man After Man is apparently Dougal Dixon expanding on the success of After Man, a previous and similarly themed effort imagining the next few million years worth of animal evolution in the event of our disappearance; and this theme - imagining the next few million years of human evolution - if supposedly tainted with certain visuals pinched wholesale from artist Wayne Douglas Barlow, was hardly an original idea in the first place what with H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and doubtless many others; and in any case Dixon's book worked well enough for me when I first read it a couple of decades ago.

Man After Man is far from perfect. The illustrations have a bit of a folksy quality, seem anatomically awkward and all with peculiarly flat noses; and the Hiver, or Alvearanthropus desertus - a future human predicted to evolve some two million years hence - for some reason resembles an ageing Jewish comedian of the 1950s - although whether that's necessarily a bad thing would certainly be subject to debate. Also off-putting is how, despite Darwin's theory of evolution being piss-easy to understand if you just bother to read the bloody thing, Dixon joins the millions who somehow manage to get it wrong in crucial places, which is disappointing given its being the central theme of the book. Not that he drops major clangers, but he takes a loose, somehow very seventies approach which allows our descendants to evolve not only telepathy but also race memory.

Niggles aside, I'm nevertheless won over by the sheer weirdness of this enterprise. It isn't a novel, or at least it isn't a novel in the conventional sense, but it's certainly a narrative, presented as pseudo-factual by the same terms as Stapledon's Last and First Men. The premise here is that humanity has destroyed its environment and will eventually abandon planet leaving behind a scattering of engineered humans. These people, or possibly creatures, are adapted to occupy specific ecosystems from which most animal life has been extinguished. Why this is done isn't really clear - one of several fumbled balls in a sequence which might otherwise resemble the hard science-fiction of Asimov and his pals. Anyway, Earth is vacated but for a decreasing populace of subsistence farmers and numerous peculiar mammals in the seas, forests, and deserts - all engineered from human DNA, and engineered with a level of intelligence equivalent to that of higher apes. The reasoning is screwy, but the ideas are fascinating because they kind of work, and it would be interesting to read something more traditionally resembling a story featuring Dixon's Plains-Dwellers or the somewhat nightmarish Parasite/Host creatures he imagines evolving in the more distant future; but of course part of the appeal of this projection is the setting, an era bereft of anything with much in the way of language that would provide the focus of such a story - at least nothing beyond your basic grunting Tontospeak. As the inheritors of a future Earth, these are by definition creatures we would have trouble understanding, which is why Man After Man works so well as a speculative history.

It could have been a little tighter in places - maybe having Homo mensproavodorum work out how to build boats the hard way like our own ancestors rather than by means of implausible racial memories of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; or expanding on the extraordinarily heightened environmental senses found amongst, for example, the Bushmen of the Kalahari rather than souring the recipe with telepathy. Also, the environmental message has
about it a touch of Neil from The Young Ones, reiterating certain entirely too simplistic claims often made regarding overpopulation; yet still, it's difficult to avoid being drawn into the reality of this weird and fearsomely believable future Earth.

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