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Literature / Evolution

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Evolution is a novel by Stephen Baxter spanning 645 million years of Earth's history, with most chapters focusing on sixty-five million years ago to thirty million years in the future. The book is split into three parts:

"Ancestors" focuses on various ancestors and predecessors of humanity, starting with a ratlike animal that coexisted with the dinosaurs and describing sapient Jurassic dinosaurs, the earliest social primates, African proto-monkeys carried to South America on driftwood rafts, the last of the polar dinosaurs, and the first apes to step out into the savannah.

"Humans" depicts various turnings in human development, including the slow development of tool use and intelligence, the invention of religion, the spread out of Africa and the clashes between the various human species, the dying of the Roman Empire, and the final collapse of modern civilization.

"Descendants" follows the Earth after the downfall of human civilization, beginning with soldiers awakening from suspended animation to find a barren world home only to feral posthumans and heading further into a strange ecosystem populated by monstrous rats and human animals before ending in the dying, dust-strewn wastes of the last supercontinent.

Not the Awaken Online story.

This book provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Baxter starts the frame story in the year 2031 (twenty-eight years after the novel's publication) with civilisation at its apex, yet simultaneously threatened by the damage it has done to the ecosystem that supports it.
  • Absurdly Dedicated Worker: The replicator robots have been designed as a precursor to human colonisation of Mars, with instructions to build homes, assemble air and water, grow food and build cars, computers and other conveniences for the colonists. No human ever arrives at Mars before their downfall, but the replicating robots keep doing their job even after they lose contact with humans. Until they were told otherwise, their only purpose was to replicate, eventually destroying Mars and spreading around the universe.
  • Adam and Eve Plot: Subverted in "The Long Shadow". The sole female member of the reawakened squadron runs away because she knows the men want to enact this with her.
  • After the End: Due to the timescale of the books, many chapters could qualify, but the Descendants section is the most obvious from a human perspective.
  • Alas, Poor Yorick: Mother digs out her child's skull and cradles it, and later she starts using it as a totem to gain influence over her tribe.
  • Alien Sky:
    • The soldiers who awake many millennia of years in the future in "The Long Shadow" find a sky with no Mars and constellations that have somewhat changed as their composing stars have moved through the sky and new stars have been born. The latter fact is also mentioned in Remembrance's part, having happened to a much larger degree.
    • Earth's sky in Ultimate's time is dominated by the immense spiral of the Milky Way, since the Sun's orbit has taken it out of the primary disk. It also has an Andromeda Galaxy that appears larger and brighter as it has moved towards the Milky Way and a brighter Moon thanks to a more luminous Sun.
    • The skies end up Venus-like, covered in clouds, when the luminosity of the Sun climbs enough and much later on when the former has swollen into a red giant it's implied it dominates them.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: It's not stated exactly when "A Long Shadow" (the first chapter in the Descendants section) takes place. The characters can only speculate that it must have been more than a millennium since civilisation ended and they were put into cryostasis.
  • Anachronic Order: Halfway throughout Purga's story in the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, the book takes a side-trip to the Ornitholestes Listener, an intelligent dinosaur living in the depths of the Jurassic.
  • And the Adventure Continues: A flashforward mentions another planet that was seeded by the last life on Earth.
  • Antlion Monster: The rat-mouths of New Pangaea, descendants of rodents, live in underground holes and catch their food by waiting for an unlucky animal to fall into their maw.
  • Apocalypse How: Several categories.
    • Class 3a: Natural Human Extinction: This begins to happen in the 2031 segments, when a supervolcano explodes before the humans get a chance to undo the damage done to the environment.
    • Another 3a happens to the intelligent dinosaurs from "The Hunters of Pangaea", who go extinct after the Diplodocus herd that they depend upon dies off due to its matriarch's death and climate disruption caused by the breakup of Pangea.
    • Class 4: Biosphere Extinction: Several. The extinction of the dinosaurs is described in detail, as is the effect of humans on biodiversity. There is also mention of the asteroid Eros impacting thirty million years from now.
    • Class 5: Planetary Extinction and Class 6: Planetary Desolation: In the flash-forward near the end of the book, the planet gets so hot that only bacteria are able to survive, then so hot that nothing can survive.
    • Class X: Planetary Annihilation: Mars is entirely consumed by self-replicating robots that humans sent to Mars soon before dying out. The robots go on to create a civilization that lasts much, much longer than humanity did. In the flash-forward mentioned above, the Earth is also destroyed by the dying Sun.
  • Apophenia Plot: Mother is one of the first humans to develop an understanding of cause and effect, and a lifetime spent cogitating about complex causal chains eventually leads her to believe that there is a direct intent behind everything. Even if doesn't know the specific mechanisms by which something happened, nothing happens by chance — after all, just because an antelope skewered by a spear doesn't see the hidden hunter, its death was still planned and determined by a hidden intelligence. As the story puts it, she essentially becomes the first conspiracy theorist. This is portrayed as a mixed blessing overall — while it leads her to becoming incredibly paranoid and deluded (she sees possible traitors everywhere, and murdered her own aunt out of a belief that she caused the illness that killed Mother's son), it also allows her to create relatively complex technology, develop sophisticated survival strategies, and order her tribal society in a manner much more complex than her less mentally adept tribemates could.
  • Arc Words: "Life had always been chancy" is used a number of times through the book, always after the story makes a point about how the history of humanity has involved a tremendous number of chance events and precarious situations, and how if history had followed a very slightly different path — if this one Purgatorius hadn't survived, or if a lava flow hadn't isolated that one tribe of primitive pithecines from their forest — life on Earth would have followed a very different course, and humanity would never have existed.
  • Artistic License – Biology: "The Long Shadow" mentions that dogs and cats would die out quickly with humans gone, since they're too dependent on human care for survival and can't reliably hunt for themselves anymore. This is broadly correct for dogs, which don't form stable populations away from human settlements unless they extensively interbreed with wild wolves or dingoes; cats, however, are notorious for going feral very easily — it doesn't take more than a couple generations for cats to go wild enough to start to entirely avoid humans, even house cats will independently catch and kill prey as large as rabbits, and feral cats are considered to be one of the most ecologically dangerous invasive species in the world.
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: Implied with "Cata Huuk", the in-story name of the Proto-Indo-European town located in present-day Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Possibly the idea is that Cata Huuk was the original name, but this is certainly incorrect. Çatalhöyük means Fork Mound in Turkish, a non-Indo-European language that only entered the Near East in the past millennium.
  • Artistic License – Paleontology: While most of the time Baxter gets the science right, and the speculative leaps he takes are somewhat within the bounds of plausibility, a few examples must be mentioned.
    • In "The Hunters of Pangea", Baxter mentions that the only evidence humans had of the sapient Ornitholestes is the disappearance of sauropods in the Late Jurassic, since the sapient species' bones and technology are too fragile to preserve. Problem is, sauropods didn't go extinct in the Late Jurassic, not even in the Northern Hemisphere. There were as many sauropods inhabiting North America in the Early Cretaceous as there were in the Late Jurassic, including Astrodon, Sauroposeidon, and Sonorasaurus. However, there was a mass extinction at the end of the Jurassic that claimed the dominant Jurassic sauropods, and the sauropods referred to in that story were all Diplodocus, which did go extinct then. The phrase was "the disappearance of the giant sauropods". It could easily have meant just those specific species, not sauropods in general, but the wording is nonetheless ambiguous.
    • In the stories involving Purgatorius, while Baxter does get it right by cloaking his troodonts in feathers, he leaves them off his dromaeosaurs. He also depicts the raptors as cold-blooded, despite the fact that raptors are the very dinosaurs which ignited the cold blood/warm blood debate. In fact, even paleontologists who doubt endothermy in ornithischians and sauropods don't deny that raptors were most likely endothermic. And then there are the Giganotosaurus and Suchomimus in North America. Not only are these animals in the wrong place (Giganotosaurus was from South America, Suchomimus from Africa), but they are from the wrong time, as both species were from the Early Cretaceous; Baxter excuses these particular issues by having the dinosaurs in question belong to different but related species whose fossils simply haven't been found.
    • "The Crossing" has some anachronism and Misplaced Wildlife in it too. Not only does it have indricotherid rhinos (native only to Asia) and camels (who were only found in North America at this time) inhabiting Africa, it also has gastornid birds in an Oligocene-Miocene setting... even after these animals were supposed to have died out in the middle Eocene.
  • Artistic License – Space: While it's true the Sun gets more luminous with time and that increasing luminosity will mess so much with Earth's climate that will cause the eventual extinction of life and loss of oceans much before it goes into red-giant mode, the Sun that will shine 500 million years in the future, when the last chapter of the book takes place, will not be very different of the current one in size and luminosity and not the ferocious one Baxter describes, at least if stellar evolution models are right, even if luminous enough to begin affecting life.
  • Ascended to Carnivorism: The Antarctican descendants of the herbivorous Leaellynasaura adapted to eating meat and became scavengers.
  • Author Tract: Many interesting ideas are pushed aside by Baxter promoting his specific sociological views.
  • The Beautiful Elite: A consequence of the development of genetic engineering is that the rich can now spend their money to make their children look better.
  • Bee People: The mole-like posthumans have adopted eusociality, where the majority of the population are sterile females, to adapt to living in cramped underground burrows.
  • Bittersweet Ending: By the end of the book, all the primates are dead, along with all life on Earth, and all recognizable traces of humans are long gone, but they're succeeded by a mechanical civilization, and bacteria from Earth seeded life on new worlds, condemning them to the same eons-long cycle of violence that once engulfed Earth.
  • Blessed with Suck: The mutant frogs of New Pangaea are extremely effective ambush hunters due to be invisible. However, their invisibility also means they're blind, because a transparent retina can't catch light, and their reliance on transparent replacements for organic chemicals makes their biology very inefficient. On top of that, their lack of protective pigments of any sort makes them extremely susceptible to cancer. All of them die before reaching adulthood. The only reason their kind survives is because they're only a small minority in a normally visible species, and catch a great deal of food for their siblings before they die.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Through the book, actions of infanticide, rape and genocide of other tribes and people are given the motivation of survival and passing the genes to the next generation, with all its cold logic explained.
  • Colony Drop: Earth is hit by two major cosmic bodies, both causing a mass extinction — the comet that killed the dinosaurs and Eros in the future. Numerous other impacts of this scale occur during the Solar System's dying days, but by that point there's nothing left on Earth for them to kill.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Baxter's explanation of how human civilisation ends emphasises that we are prey to powerful forces that we cannot control. The undoing of humanity is not nuclear war, global warming or a deadly virus grown in a laboratory, but an enormous super-volcano that disrupts the planet's weather systems enough to cause civilisation to collapse. Volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, ice ages and indeed evolution itself destroy humanity's delusions of grandeur. Humans are no different from the millions of species that have come into being, thrived, then vanished into oblivion. In the eyes of Earth, we are a minor flash in the pan. In the eyes of the cosmos, we are less than a speck of dust. Look at those who have fallen before us; why should we fare any better? Are we really any different?
  • A Dog Named "Dog": Three of the first protagonists of the story are a Purgatorius named Purga, a Plesiadapis named Plesi and a Notharctus named Noth. Purga's nemesis in the first chapter is a Troodon named Wounding Tooth (which is what Troodon means in Greek). Of course, none of these characters actually call themselves by names; they are simply labels used by the story to refer to them.
  • Double Meaning: The ruler of Cata Huuk is known as the Potus. While a passable cognate for potentate, it also shares a spelling with the acronym POTUS for President of the United States.
  • Downer Ending: Many resolutions to the individual chapters. The novel itself ends with the death of the last primate to reproduce, and might count depending on whether you care about bacteria seeding new life or robot civilizations.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: For Purga, Plesi and Remembrance, life is nasty, brutal and short. In "Kingdom of the Rats", Remembrace escapes her homicidal cousins in the trees, runs into a giant rat on the forest floor, and escapes into the treetops only to be plucked by a giant finch. The savage landscape of the selfish gene is their habitat.
  • The Fair Folk: The pithecines, who took to living as scavengers in the forest fringe and occasionally hunted humans, their savannah-dwelling cousins, are depicted as the basis in reality of these myths.
    When they had committed themselves to the savannah, Far's kind had turned their backs on the forest — which had, as if in revenge, become a place not of sanctuary but of claustrophobic danger, populated by these pithecines which, like the sprites they resembled, would inhabit nightmares long into the future.
  • Feathered Fiend: The finches and starlings, having survived and thrived in the wake of humanity, have become ferocious killers to the mammals dwelling under the forest canopy.
  • Final Solution: At the end of "A Crowded Land", a group of anatomically modern humans arrive at an island and exterminate the local population of late Homo erectus people, stranded there millennia earlier as sea levels rose.
  • Flying Seafood Special: Fish that fly with winglike fins are among the creatures that populate the Earth thirty million years after humanity's downfall.
  • The Fog of Ages: The replicator robots share their memories with each other through the generations, but over long spans of time these become increasingly less reliable. By the time of New Pangaea, the replicator swarms scattered through the stars have long forgotten where they came from, and their collective memory eventually trails away into a vague emptiness.
  • Formerly Sapient Species: "Descendants" depicts the regression of humanity back into non-sapient, tree-dwelling primates.
    • In the section's first chapter, a squadron of soldiers are awakened from cryostasis an uncertain number of millennia into the future and encounter a troop of hairy feral posthumans.
    • By thirty million years hence, humans have returned to being arboreal apes. Their nests vaguely resemble small buildings that they decorate with glass fragments to ward off predators, but they are otherwise little different from a chimp or australopithecine. Numerous other posthuman species have emerged by this point, including arboreal hunters, elephantine giants "farmed" by carnivorous rats and burrowing creatures living in underground hives.
    • By half a billion years hence, when life on Earth is coming to an end, posthumans are the last mammals: small, russet-furred monkey-like animals that live in chemical thrall to a species of tree.
  • Giant Flyer: The air whale, a giant pterosaur with a 100-metre wingspan that lives in the stratosphere, feeding on insects and windblown seeds. Its internal structure is incredibly rarefied in order to diminish its weight, and degrades too quickly to leave fossils.
  • Groin Attack: Solo bites off a testicle from the Notharctus troop's alpha male, the Emperor. Fortunately, they seem to have much a lower pain threshold in that particular part of their anatomy than humans.
  • Grows on Trees: The barometz Trees of New Pangaea are involved in posthuman reproduction by mixing the parents' bodily fluid, and also feed the children with the organic mechanisms in their leafy cocoons.
  • Human Popsicle: Some soldiers end up that way and awake in an unknown future in "The Long Shadow".
  • Humanity's Wake: The "Descendants" section takes place in the future, about humanity's descendants after the end of civilisation.
  • Human Sacrifice: An invention of Mother to remove political dissidents, under the guise of bringing rain. Fortunately, only two sacrificial victims are required before the rains come; she was quite prepared to work her way through the entire tribe.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Baxter's views on humanity are depressing. We are almost always represented in a negative light as we exhaust our resources and exploit anything of benefit to us. We are unable to overcome our animal urge to destroy anything we do not know or understand. Selfishness and xenophobia are mankind's modus operandi.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Zigzagged with the early humans who believed they were living in harmony with nature by hunting animals lightly. In other words, they were driving their prey to extinction by killing the animals at a time when they were vulnerable, by selectively killing off the young, by disrupting habitats and by taking out key components of the food web.
  • Invisibility with Drawbacks: All invisible mutant frogs are blind (a transparent retina can't trap light), have inefficient biochemistry for having to use transparent substitutes, are extremely vulnerable to cancer for lack of protection from light, heat and the Sun's radiation, and live short, wretched lives in constant agony before dying as juveniles, never reaching adulthood, because a lack of melanin means they can't block ultraviolet light and are thus very prone to cancer.
  • Invisible Monsters: 500 million years in the future, a species of amphibians has a chance to produce a mutant that replaces most of the body's biochemicals with transparent substances, making it almost invisible and extremely difficult to detect, looking like little more than big bags of water sitting in the desert of New Pangaea.
  • Irony: Purga survives long after menopause and lives to actually die of old age (which is normally extremely rare in the wild)... thanks to the impact that killed off the dinosaurs and many others.
    And it was an irony that in former times she would surely already have succumbed to predation by now: it was the great emptying of the world that had preserved her life — a few extra months won at the expense of uncounted billions of creatures.
  • Just Before the End:
    • "Dinosaur Dreams" is set a few days before the comet impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, when nothing seemed out of the ordinary beyond a steadily brightening light in the southern sky as the comet approaches.
    • "The Last Burrow" is set in the last days of the polar dinosaurs, as the lowering temperatures and the growing ice slowly drive them into extinction.
    • "The Dying Light" is set in the last days of the Western Roman Empire, as the final remnants of its civilization finish crumbling away into a mass of petty barbarian kingdoms.
    • The epilogue is set some years after a volcanic eruption causes the collapse of human civilization, when only a few last pockets of civilized humans are hanging on in a world doomed to go over to animals, feral humans and overgrown ruins.
    • "A Far Distant Futurity" is set 500 million years into the future, when the continents of Earth have merged into a hot, flat, dry supercontinent that resembles the surface of Mars, and life is on the decline.
  • Kill It with Ice: The very last polar dinosaurs are slowly frozen to death by Antarctica's glaciation.
  • Last of Its Kind: A number of these appear in the apocalyptic segments as chance survivors of lineages too broken and scattered to reform. "The Devil's Tail" features the last Euplocephalus, whose herd had endured the initial devastation of the K-Pg extinction thanks to their thick armor, but who gradually succumbed to the cold, starvation and the constant acid rain, which killed their last eggs before they could hatch. By the time she limps her way to the shore of the inland sea, dying and lost, she is the last non-avian dinosaur alive outside of a small holdout on Antarctica, and quite certainly the last one left in North America and the last living ankylosaur.
  • Legend Fades to Myth:
    • In the first segment of "Raft Continent", Ejan and Rocha craft a simple outrigger canoe, sail to Australia, and briefly encounter a giant snake. A thousand years later, the distant descendants of the early colonists that followed them tell legends about how they flew across the straits on a boat lined with gull feathers and fought giant serpents and other monsters.
    • During the first five thousand years of the human colonisation of Australia, they have killed off all the continent's megafauna, such as giant kangaroos, which survive only as cave paintings. They are dismissed as childish doodling by people who have already forgotten what has been lost.
  • Lost World:
    • Antarctica, as depicted in "The Last Burrow", is a holdout of creatures long extinct everywhere else — the last nonavian dinosaurs live there, having endured the mass extinction thanks to their preexisting adaptations to long periods of cold and darkness, alongside remnant plesiadapids who rafted over to the continent and survived long after rodents and modern primates drove them into extinction elsewhere in the world. This lost world is ultimately doomed, however, as Antarctica moves towards the south pole and becomes covered in ice.
    • Australia, as depicted in "Raft Continent", has remained isolated from the other continents for tens of millions of years and is home to strange creatures from lineages otherwise struggling or extinct, such as a wide variety of giant marsupials and immense reptiles. Within a few thousand years of landing there, however, humanity hunts all of its megafauna to extinction.
  • Mad Scientist: Mother understands the concept of cause and effect, and is capable of abstract thought. This enables her to invent the spear thrower, a crucial invention because her people are starving. But Mother's enhanced mental powers come at a cost; many of her ideas come to her when she is having crippling migraines. She begins to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia following the death of her son, and invents the world's first religion.
  • Mechanical Evolution: The replicator robots sent to Mars tried, incorporated and abandoned many modifications when replicating themselves, creating new kinds of robots, learning and adapting whenever they encounter a new condition.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: The world thirty million years in the future is full of these: rat-leopards, rat-cheetahs, mouse-raptors, elephant-men, mole-men, rabbit-gazelles, goat-elephants, duck-billed goats, finch-eagles, cormorant-cetaceans and so on. Strictly speaking, however, these are simply animals that have evolved to closely resemble other, extinct lineages, rather than being actual chimeras of different creatures.
    Thus there were rabbits morphed into gazelles, rats become cheetahs. Only subtleties were changed — a nervous twitchiness about the rabbits, a hard-running intensity about the rats that had replaced the cats' languid grace.
  • Mole Men: Thirty million years after the end of human civilization, a strain of humans has become adapted for living in crowded, mazelike burrows among the roots of a symbiotic tree. These mole folk are small and shrunken, entirely hairless, and with small ears and eyes completely covered by skin, and instead rely on touch and whiskers to get around. They have also developed sharp, shovel-like fingernails for digging.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Eros crashes into Earth causing an extinction-level event because of the lack of a planet Mars that stabilizes its orbit.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: A Neanderthal known as the Old Man looks after Jahna and her brother when they are cut off from a hunting party in a snowstorm. Does his hospitality result in gratitude and reconciliation with the skinnies? No, his generosity is rewarded by the children's father only with a brutal death.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: During their unintended journey from Africa to South America, the hungry anthros are forced to eat their own dead so the living won't starve to death.
  • Not So Extinct: One of Alison Scott's genetic creations is a living reconstruction of an Australopithecus.
  • Of the People: Early hominids don't need to dehumanize people because it never occurs to them that hominids not members of their own band are people.
    And just as they were able to believe that things, weapons or animals or the sky, were in some way people, it wasn't a hard leap to make to believe that some people were no more than things. The old categories had broken down. In attacking the river folk they weren't killing humans, people like themselves. The river folk, for all their technical cleverness with fire and clay, had no such belief.
  • One-Gender Race: The last of humanity's descendants 500 million years in the future are all functionally female, there are no males any more, and gender is meaningless.
  • Path of Inspiration: Gods, religion, life after death, black magic and human sacrifice are depicted as the creation of a manipulative, emotionally unbalanced woman wielding her dead son's memory as a weapon in a bid to gain political power. On the other hand, religion is shown to have also a positive impact on the tribe since its teachings improve the quality of life of its members and bring unity to them.
  • People Farms: The mouse-raptors thirty million years in the future domesticate, protect and farm a species of elephant-like descendants of humans for food.
  • Precursors: The Ornitholestes from the second chapter could be considered this to mankind, being a civilization that existed in the Jurassic. Unlike most examples, though, nobody will ever know that they existed, as they only made tools out of wood, and the only evidence of their existence is the extinction of some types of sauropods in the Jurassic.
  • Quest to the West: In "The Crossing", a group of monkeys are swept out from the Congo River to the Atlantic by a flash flood. They survive the immediate peril by clinging to a raft of matted vegetation, but then have to endure weeks of thirst and starvation, during which many of them die. At length, the raft drifts ashore and the survivors find themselves in South America, becoming the progenitors of the New World monkeys that live there to this day.
  • Ragnarök Proofing:
    • Averted. Very little remains of human civilization except fossils and some very durable structures such as an artificial cave or a gorge excavated to build a road.
    • In "The Long Shadow", while preserved stuff such as guns has survived, concrete has degraded, metal has rusted off, and everything else has been victim of the ravages of time.
    • The end of Remembrance's part mentions the NEAR-Shoemaker probe still on the asteroid Eros, even if it has suffered the effects of space weathering.
  • The Remnant:
    • "The Last Burrow" depicts the Antarctica ecosystem 55 million years after the Cretaceous impact, where small lemming-like primates compete with the last non-avian dinosaurs to have survived the Cretaceous impact, including the descendants of Muttaburrasaurus, Leaellynasaura and Allosaurus, with a Koolasuchus thrown in somewhere.
    • In "The Kingdom of the Rats", Eastern Africa is the last place where the animalistic posthumans exist, which in turn are the last primates. In most of the world, they were outcompeted and driven to extinction by the increasingly dominant and diverse rodents; Eastern Africa, which had rifted off from the rest of the continent before the rodent radiation fully took place, was the only place where they had enough time to adapt into new niches and compete efficiently with the rodents when these eventually arrived there as well.
  • Rodents of Unusual Size: Thirty million years after the end of civilisation, the rodent survivors of the crash have diversified into rat-cheetahs, rat-leopards and mouse-raptors that hunt rabbit-gazelles and duck-billed goats.
  • Scenery Gorn: After many vivid descriptions of the world of the dinosaurs, both in the late Jurassic and the late Cretaceous, the destruction of that world is described just as vividly — the narration gives extensive attention to the systematic demolition of the landscapes, species and individual creatures described in the earlier Cretaceous chapter, as they're annihilated in the initial blast waves, drowned and crushed in the tsunamis, slaughtered in the rain of fragments falling back to earth, incinerated in global firestorms, or slowly frozen to death in the ensuing impact winter.
  • Scenery Porn: The world is much more developed and interesting than the characters, and the physical environments and complex webs of ecological relationships are described in lush and vivid detail.
  • Screaming Birth: Every single birth that gets described. In at least one case, the mother recovers lightning-quick once the birth is finished to describe her newborn's actions in terms of evolutionary heritage, as though the whole "screaming in pain" thing was part of a script.
  • Servant Race: At the end of civilisation, humanity was heading to this when the genriched elite inserted a whole extra chromosome full of desirable genes into their kids, making them unable to breed with unenhanced Homo sapiens. The rich have set themselves up as a separate species.
  • Shout-Out:
    • With bitter irony, the characters of "The Long Shadow" name a feral posthuman girl Weena, but she could not be more different from Wells' 'little doll of a creature': she is covered in fur and stinks 'like a monkey cage'.
    • Dog- and leopard-rats, ungulate-rabbits, elephant-pigs, eagle-passerines, whale-seabirds, and hadrosaur-ungulates may have been inspired by After Man: A Zoology of the Future, which includes rat descendants adapted to fill the niches of extinct carnivorans, an elephant-like pig descendant, and a fully marine penguin similar to a baleen whale.
  • Single-Biome Planet:
    • At several points in the Earth's history, such as in the Jurassic and the Paleocene, its land is entirely covered by immense forests. Jurassic Earth, in particular, is ecologically very uniform due to the joining of the continents having allowed all kinds of beings to migrate, mingle, and outcompete each other until only a select few survived, and cover all the lands until only a uniform, global forest community was left.
    • New Pangaea, a supercontinent which will reassemble 500 million years into the future, is entirely covered by a uniform desert of red dust.
      On this New Pangaea, there were no barriers, no lakes or mountain ranges. Nowadays it didn't matter where you went, from pole to equator, from east to west. Everywhere was the same. And there was dust everywhere. Even the air was full of red dust, suspended there by the habitual sandstorms, making the sky a butterscotch-coloured dome. It was more like Mars than Earth.
  • Slave Race: 31,000 years ago, humans co-exist with the last Neanderthals, but despise them, call them 'boneheads', treat them no better than vermin and have reduced them to pack-animals to haul their sleds.
  • Slept Through the Apocalypse: One of the stories deals with a group of soldiers who were in suspended animation waking up hundreds of thousands of years after the human civilization collapsed, they encounter the precursors of raptor-like rodents and a group of feral humans.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: A Troodon pursues Purga, the protagonist of the first chapter, not because she's hungry, but because she snapped when she found Purga eating her eggs.
  • Swarm of Rats: The narration notes that the packs of predator rats living thirty million years hence still run closely together in a way that evokes this more than a wolf pack.
  • The Symbiote:
    • In "The Kingdom of the Rats", the borametz trees have adapted to live symbiotically alongside colonies of ants, termites and eusocial posthumans, which stores their seeds and plant new trees when conditions are good in exchange for feeding on the trees' sap. The narration notes that this will prove to be a very efficient system, and that the borametz trees will eventually outcompete most other plants.
    • The inhabitants of New Pangaea took the principle of cooperation and sharing to its extremes to survive in the dying Earth. The descendant of the borametz Tree cannot survive without the insects that bring nutrients to its roots, and the mammals who bring it water, food, and salt, and plant its seeds. Even its leaves belong to another plant. Likewise, the symbiotes cannot have survived without the tree, which shelters them from predators and climate, and feeds them with its sap.
  • Theme Naming: The chapters set in the human era link a diverse set of protagonists named Ja-ahn, Ejan, Jo-on, Jahna, Juna and Joan Useb over a period of tens of thousands of years.
  • Toothy Bird: Some of the marine cormorants, having taken the niches of the dolphins that went extinct alongside humanity, have regrown the teeth of their ancient reptilian ancestors. This trait is retained into the future, and the flightless birds of New Pangea also sport sharp teeth in their beaks.
  • To the Future, and Beyond: The Framing Device is set in the near future of 2031; after that, the last chapters are set farther and farther in the future — an unspecified age at least a millennium away, thirty million years in the future, and 500 million years in the future.
  • T. Rexpy: In "The Kingdom of the Rats", one of the new species of predators descended from rodents are immense, bipedal mice with massive heads built to thrust great slashing teeth into their prey, and long thick tails to balance them. The narration explicitly compares them to the bygone tyrannosaurs.
    It looked like one of the great carnivorous dinosaurs of the Cretaceous days. Its forearms were small, its tail was thickened for balance, and its hind legs were awesomely powerful machines of muscle and bone. Its incisors had developed into ferocious slashing weapons, to be deployed by thrusts of the heavy head. The mouse-raptor was a land shark, like a tyrannosaur, a body design rediscovered and made devastatingly effective.
  • Tribal Face Paint: Early humans identify kin groups by ochre markings scrawled on their faces, hands and arms.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?:
    • The boneheads (Neanderthals) once Homo sapiens sapiens takes over.
    • Elisha wonders if it is still rape to have non-consensual sex with a genetically non-compatible partner.
  • Where It All Began: The story begins in Late Cretaceous Montana where the fossil of Purgatorius was found, and ends at the same place 565 million years later, during the time of Ultimate, humanity's final descendant.
  • Xenofiction: Only a few chapters are about humans, while the rest follow the lives of a variety of nonhuman, prehuman and posthuman animals.
  • You Dirty Rat!: A recurring motif of the chapters dealing with human evolution and descendants is the competition between primates and rodents for resources and ecological niches, with rodents being dumber but more efficient. The most feared apex predators thirty million years in the future are all rodents, such as rat-leopards and mouse-raptors, while humans have devolved back into arboreal apes, so it could be said the rodents eventually won.