Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Review: 'After Man' by Dougal Dixon

 3 / 5 Stars

This oversize (9 1/4 x 11 inches) trade paperback edition of ‘After Man’ (124 pp., St Martin’s Press) was published in 1981.

Dougal Dixon is a Scottish-born author and illustrator of illustrated science fiction and science fact books, primarily for a juvenile audience, although some of his work is quite accessible to adults as well.

‘After Man’ takes as its premise the state of the Earth some 50 million years into the future. Homo sapiens has, through some vaguely described Eco-catastrophe, passed from the world. Since most of larger mammalian species were extinguished along with Man, the animals that have inherited this new world all are descended from the more resourceful ‘trash’ species of our own era: rats, squirrels, crows, pigs, mongooses, etc.

The book opens with a grayscale text section reviewing the basics of evolution and ecology as per 1981, then moves into the bulk of the book, which consists of nicely done color illustrations of the various animals inhabiting the major habitats: temperate woodlands and grasslands, the tundra and polar regions, deserts, tropical forests, etc.

The book is very didactic; practically every page is suffused with references to the reality and process of evolution, the devastation wrought by the careless and thoughtless actions of Man, and the miraculous ability of Nature to recover from these ravages. Indeed, Man is seen as a nasty sort of disease that plagued Gaia / Mother Earth for an unnecessarily long time and whose riddance is cause for celebration.

This was not all that surprising a tenor for a natural history book seeing print in 1981; while ‘Global Warming’ had yet to exist as the primary cause celebre’, Doomsday Angst - linked to the threat of nuclear war – was all the rage among the scholarly and intellectual classes. This attitude was soon to be articulated in books such as Jonathan Schell’s ‘The Fate of the Earth’ (1982), and the New Wave song ‘Red Skies’ by The Fixx (also 1982).

As a book to be read for either reasons of pleasure or pedagogy, ‘After Man’ comes across reasonably well. Older children will find the different kinds of animals, and the explanations of their behavior and life histories, to be engaging and informative. ‘After Man’ is a very ‘British’ book, in the sense that it mimics the style of a Victorian-era natural history tome. Many of the picture captions are in spidery longhand, and the background color scheme sports the sort of sepia tint one might associate with an old book collecting dust on the shelf of a Gentlemen’s Study ca. 1870. This rather eccentric presentation gives the book its own unique visual character.

The book does have some weaknesses; the sententious tone of the narrative starts to grate after a while, and the 9-pt. text, and cursive writing of the picture captions, will be laborious to take in for those with less than ideal eyesight. As well, the Introduction by that old fraud Desmond Morris (‘The Naked Ape’, ‘The Human Zoo’), he of the cunning and calculated winking, tweedy, salacious mien, could have been jettisoned without loss.

In summary, even though it’s getting close to 30 years after it first saw print, ‘After Man’ remains an interesting look at a ‘what if’ scenario and should continue to appeal to a broad readership of children and adults.






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