It’s fifty million years after the extinction of humans. Emissions have ceased, property lines have vanished, and plastic particles have all but dissolved. Across the grasslands of what was once the United States, Falanx (giant, dog-like rats) hunt Rabbucks (long-necked, deer-like descendents of the rabbit). On small islands in the Pacific, ground dwelling bats known as the Flooer feast on insects that mistake their large ears for petals. In the cool southern seas, the 12-meter long Vortex, a distant relative of the penguin, peacefully traverses the ocean in search of plankton to eat. In spite of the mass extinction produced by human industry, life on earth has persevered.
This is the world of After Man, as it was envisioned by the speculative zoologist Dougal Dixon in 1981. This year, Breakdown Press has released an expanded anniversary edition of the futurist encyclopedia, which meticulously documents and illustrates peculiar creatures that could exist 50 million years after the extinction of the human species. Forty years after its original publication, the environmental and cultural context for the book has markedly shifted due to the climate crisis. And in many ways, that makes the distant scenes of a changed world all the more plausible and alluring.
When Dixon first wrote After Man, the “Age of Man” as he referred to it was more or less a speculative concept, one that he argued would change the course of life on the planet. Today, many scientists call this age the “Anthropocene,” and we know with more and more exacting detail just how destructive our impact on the planet is and has been. But rather than the dystopian scenes of ecological desolation and scarcity that continue to appear in much of the speculative art, media, literature, and design of recent years, the distant future in After Man is one that illustrates life — thriving and abundant.
Part of what makes Dixon’s post-anthropogenic world — teeming with the ancestors of animals we know today — so believable is their design, as well as the encyclopedic treatment of the book. Having studied paleontology and geology, Dixon started out his career working in publishing at Mitchell/Beazley Ltd. one of the major publishers of encyclopedias in the 1970s.
“I saw the way they worked and I was impressed by their products,” said Dixon recently. “And I thought: that’s the way forward, that’s the way the After Man manuscript is going to be.” In fact, encyclopedias were such a direct influence on After Man that many of its spreads are based on the publishing house’s 1973 Atlas of World Wildlife. As a result, if you didn’t know that the book was a work of fiction, you could easily flip to a page and find an animal that you’d believe exists today.
And that’s by design — or evolution rather. It is not pure imagination that created these animals but a healthy dose of evolutionary theory and zoogeography, as laid out in the book’s introduction. Scientific illustrators Diz Wallis, John Butler, Philip Hood, Ray Woodward, and Gary Marsh then rendered Dixon’s imagined critters from his original sketches. When paired with dry, third-person informational texts, Dixon successfully convinces the reader that this book is a collection of rigorous zoological research, as if the book were written by some time-traveling naturalist.
After Man was a quick, international success when it was first published. But “the very first review that I read was a demolition job,” said Dixon. “I had been so looking forward to the first review, and it was this professional scientist trashing the whole thing. But then, in contrast to that, the way it was then viewed so positively by the scientific community was very encouraging.”
The book was nominated for a Hugo Award and in subsequent years, it inspired exhibitions, movies, comics, animated films, documentary series’, and television shows. It garnered particular popularity in Japan, with multiple exhibitions and a visually delightful stop-motion animated docuseries of the same name. In 2003, the Animal Planet TV series The Future is Wild was inspired by the book and Dixon acted as consultant. The title also spawned several follow-up books by Dixon, which explored evolutionary futures. The New Dinosaurs explored how dinosaurs might have evolved had they not been wiped out by mass extinction. And 1990’s Man After Man investigated how humans would use genetic engineering to adapt to climate change, while in 2010, Greenworld documented an alien planet invaded and polluted to environmental catastrophe by humans.
For the new generation who read After Man, it will be hard to separate its imagined future from the growing planetary crisis shaped by climate change. Indeed, it was the possibility of extinction, specifically a friend’s “Save the Whales” badge, that initially inspired Dixon to start thinking about the future of animals. And while it is not explicit in the book, the specter of humanity lives on in its creatures. As Dixon wrote in the new edition’s afterword: “What would be left? I see rabbits, rats, seagulls — things that survive no matter how hard we try to wipe them out. The pests inherit the Earth.”
Dixon noted in the book’s foreword that he deliberately avoided including explicit discussion of the climate crisis, even though it was a topic of discussion at the time of its original publishing. “The reason I avoided these perfectly relevant issues was that I wanted to put realistic and recognizable backgrounds to these bizarre creatures that I was inventing, so that the reader would not feel too alienated,” writes the author in the book’s new introduction. This is easy enough to understand: It’s far more comforting to imagine a familiar looking, lush grassland filled with Gigantalopes than burnt former forests and empty, acidic seas. No doubt it is this same sense of alienation towards our planet’s changes that has led contemporary designers and artists to speculative projects; there’s an eagerness to imagine a world that comes after this one.
But unlike so many contemporary forays into speculation, the images of After Man, even forty years on, look neither utopian or dystopian. The book rejects this dualism, and instead shows us through animals, strange yet familiar, just how inevitable change is. And despite its title, After Man is not about the extinction of man but rather the perseverance of life. It is about evolution, and the changes that happen with and without us every day.
The book predates me by a decade, so I can’t speak for the original audience, but from my first experience finding Dixon’s speculative zoology as a kid in the early 2000s, getting lost in its strange world is just as enjoyable and inspiring, if not more so today, than it was then. It’s a pleasure to imagine the lowly and reviled pests of today’s world, thriving, plentiful, and walking freely across unimpeded landscapes, in a landscape that has finally metabolized the toxins and pollutants of industry, and absent the hierarchies humanity imposed upon itself and other species.
What’s more is that my threshold for disbelief seems to shrink with each passing day that the planet heats further and wars continue to rage, and while Dixon’s creatures may never actually come to be, the Gigantalopes and Groaths, the Reedstilt and the Wakka appear less outlandish to me now, and the possibility of a world absent of man, a little more likely. So if you’re also aching from a world that changes too quickly and need a light tonic for all this change that only seems to be for the worse, spend some time with After Man, enjoying the beauty, abundance, and superbly strange animalian delights that only the future, and change, can bring.