Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future

Go To
"Two creatures — a single ancestor."

Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future (1990) is the third speculative evolution book written by Scottish geologist Dougal Dixon, and the most controversial installment of the trio. Allegedly a science-fiction account of future human evolution, the premise and its accompanying illustrations can come off as disturbing. Unlike Dixon's previous two outings, this book deliberately ignores the laws of evolution, biology, and genetics when the plot calls for it; these contrivances are not helped by the unsettling pictures and imagery that accompany the posthumans of the distant future. Also unlike Dixon's previous two books, this one has a narrative component and focuses on individuals across time rather than entire species, even giving them individual names.

The main plot of the book starts 200 years from now (2190 AD), which for the book's scale is almost the present day. Humanity begins to play around with its own genetics, like a kid with LEGO blocks on a large scale, creating new humanoid creatures known as aquamorphs and aquatics (or basically Fish People), and vacuumorph beings that have been engineered for life in the vacuum of space. Their skin and eyes carry shields of skin to keep its body stable even without pressure as living space probes. All the while, however, the Earth's environment is getting increasingly polluted and climate change has caused major disruption to civilization, the few nation-states that are left are sending colonists into space to search for other habitable planets.

Unfortunately, a century later, environmental deterioration finally kills off most of the planet's fauna. Humanity is (inexplicably) one of the only species left standing and so a faction of the survivors (a cybernetically enhanced offshoot known as the Hitek) begin to create new Biotech Human species for the next 500 years en masse to fill in some of critical ecosystemic niches left by the general absence of the Earth's now countless extinct animal species. Meanwhile some of the remnants of unaltered humans decide to leave the wrecked earth and return when it gets well... better, while others, without the benefit of technology, return to barbarism and later start to build a form of civilization again.

Unfortunately that doesn't happen when the Earth's magnetic field flips. The Hitek (and also the remaining normal humans) went extinct themselves in 2990, allowing the altered humans to naturally evolve for a few million years (which is the main point of the book). Ironically, the descendants of humanity that went to the stars and now return have themselves been altered — and possibly evolved — so much they no longer recognize their ancestral planet, let alone the animals on its surface, and exploit both to the point of eradication.

Near the end of the book, most of the Earth's inhabitants either leave or die out, leaving only a species of deep-sea aquatics to eke out hand-to-mouth lives on the ocean floor, although someday (according to the book) they would eventually leave the water and become the new dominant species on the planet.

The majority of tropes below might lead you to think that this is some sort of horror novel or film. However, this is far from the case. In fact, it's only a flight of fancy created as a fictional textbook.

See also All Tomorrows for another story about the far future evolution of humanity, and Super-Conductive Brains Parataxis for another nightmarish tale of human genetic engineering.

Man After Man provides examples of the following tropes:

  • After the End: The entire premise of the book.
  • And I Must Scream:
    • Mainly the Food Creature (see Let's Meet the Meat, below), a grotesque mountain of flesh and fat with distorted, but still human-like features, and many of the book's altered humans that have become worker drones, maintenance units or transportation. While some do indeed have actual faces and eyes, they don't appear to be able to react to the general external world in any way.
      Speculative Fiction Wiki: Only the presence of a few identifiable organs (shriveled pulsing limbs and blind, gaping faces) show that these food-generators have been transformed from something that was once more noble. Eventually, centuries later, they die out.
    • This also includes the Vacuumorphs, exoskeletal humans that are used as living space scouting probes that have all of their vulnerable parts sealed up so they can survive the natural elements of outer space without the need of a ship. And since it's never mentioned no one from Earth retrieves them. In other words Vacuumorphs are cursed with staying in space without any way of directly seeing or communicating with the outside universe (except through their surgically attached planetary surveying equipment) and are (presumably) forced to consume nothing but their own recycled natural waste until finally accidentally falling towards and burning up in Earth's atmosphere. They cannot even travel through space — it's stated that they are high-orbit spaceship engineers only. Their bodies cannot operate or even survive in gravity at all — and that includes the artificial gravity of an accelerating space ship. They're stuck in near-Earth space.
    • The book also states that the vacuumorphs do indeed still need to breathe oxygen, the genetic engineers were unable to build a species that didn't need to breathe. So they have 3 large lungs with massive storage capacity, and a reduced metabolism so that they can survive on their stored oxygen for some considerable length of time before having to refill their lungs. However when they were left behind during the mass planetary evacuation, they would eventually have died in a few weeks with no ways to get any more breathable oxygen.
  • Apocalypse How: A Class 1 occurs due to global warming in 2200, destroying most of the coastal cities. A Class 3 destroys Homo sapiens around 3000 when the magnetic poles reverse, and finally a Class 5 occurs at the end of the book instigated by the starfaring descendants of humanity.
  • Arc Words: "Someday."
  • A World Half Full: The books end on the note that, although the Earth is a barren waste and most of the human descendants are extinct, one species still exists in the deep ocean and may be able to rebuild civilization someday.
  • Bee People: The Plains-Dwellers slowly develop increasingly organized social structures as the climate changes; by the end of the book their descendants are completely eusocial and united under a few queens.
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: The tundra-dwellers are essentially genetically-engineered yetis.
  • Blade Below the Shoulder: The plains-adapted hominids have a horn-like blade on the side of their hands for cutting grass, and this evolves into a dagger-like weapon as they become communal and caste-based.
  • Body Horror: The Tics and the Engineered Food Creatures are the two most notable culprits.
    • The Tics resemble tumorous masses of gristly flesh with human faces peering out of their folds and random assortments of arms and legs sprouting out of them.
    • The Engineered Food Creatures are misshapen hulks of meat and fat, barely even able to move, with wizened, atrophied limbs and distorted human faces.
  • Breaking Old Trends:
    • After Man and The New Dinosaurs explored different parts of the Earth's biosphere at one point in time, with the pieces we see making up life on Earth at this time. Here, each "chapter" is divided up into segments that take place at different points in time, from a few hundred years into the future to five million years later, making for a more structured and focused storyline.
    • Due to all sections of Man After Man focusing on either humans, their ancestors, or their descendants, the story has several narrative arcs, while its predeccesors lacked even one.
  • Carnivore Confusion: Addressed front and center. Yes, those are other humans that the human descendants are eating. And no, they don't find anything wrong with it.
  • Central Theme: Intelligence and how it can be used for survival. The initial plot is driven by humans trying to build spacecraft to escape the dying Earth. The hitek and tek rely on their intelligence to survive with their engineered bodies. The various human descendants all show that they still have our intellect, and use it to come up with creative solutions to survive in the changing world. At the end, when the descendants of Jimez Smoot and his people wreck Earth, the final chapter shows a group of aquatics dwelling around ocean vents that still retain their humans minds and dream of one day returning to the surface.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • Piscanthropus profundus. About one sentence is given to a population of aquatics that colonizes the deep ocean and are never heard from again. 5 million years later, we learn that their descendants have still survived and may one day re-colonize the surface of the ravaged Earth.
    • Jimez Smoot also qualifies. Early on in the book, he's one of the humans to leave Earth to find another planet suitable for containing life. 5 million years later, his descendants return to Earth and kill all life anywhere except in volcanic vents deep within the ocean.
  • Crapsack World: By the book's near end this entire story pretty much embodies this trope. Humanity does not exist anymore and most of its descendants have been wiped out by its other descendants, who are no longer human by any definition of the word and leave Earth for good, with its resources depleted and its atmosphere unbreathable to anything human. The relatively near future of the 22nd-23rd Century is also portrayed as one, with modern civilization on the verge of collapse and some lucky souls pulling an Alpha Centauri. Eventually, they come back 5 million years later...
  • Darker and Edgier: Compared to Dixon's previous speculative biology books, After Man: A Zoology of the Future and The New Dinosaurs. The far darker and horror-like tone of the book caused some pretty big backlash from those who were expecting something similar to the previous two.
  • Disability Superpower: The water-finding telepaths are blind and completely helpless without their symbiotes.
  • Extinct in the Future: By 2490, most large animals are extinct, with the only notable animals being smaller creatures like insects, spiders, lizards, snakes and rats. This is the reason why genetically-engineered offshoots of humanity are created and introduced to repopulate the empty niches.
  • Eyeless Face: The water-sensing humans carried and cared for by desert Hivers have no eyes whatsoever, and sense the world around through Psychic Powers.
  • Fish People: The Aquamorphs, Aquatics, and P. profundus all qualify, though the Aquatics arguably bear more resemblance to seals, small cetaceans, and/or manatees than to true fish.
  • Formerly Sapient Species: The Hitek create new species of animal from the only remaining genetic stock — i.e. humanity — in order to fill the numerous niches left empty by the anthropogenic extinctions. This results in four species of nonsapient humans being created — large, hairy tundra-dwellers to take over the role of musk oxen and mammoths, Australopithecus-like forest-dwellers meant to fill in the niches once occupied by deer and boars, digitigrade plains-dwellers to act as herding grazers, and apelike arboreal jungle-dwellers. Some of these species re-evolve sapience, but others remain animals. Notable are the tundra-dwellers, who evolve into numerous megafaunal herbivores; numerous predatory and even parasitic forms descended from the forest-dwellers; and the jungle-dwellers, who secluded in unchanging canopies filled with food and without dangers never had reason to develop into anything other than placid, mindless beasts.
  • Frazetta Man: Several of the new genetically-engineered human species (particularly the plains-dwellers, tropical forest-dwellers, and temperate woodland-dwellers) have been changed into forms resembling earlier hominids, with limited intelligence compared to modern humans.
  • From Bad to Worse: By the book's end, the remains of humanity left on Earth bear either little to no resemblance to what they were or even what their evolutionary ancestors were. Aliens have taken over the planet and enslaved every living thing on it. Original humans — if there even are any left at all — are now doomed to nearly eternally roam the universe in search of a new home. And the Hitek probably acted more machine than man. It doesn't help matters that those aliens also happen to be descendants of those Original Humans to fled to space.

    Additionally, while the Hitek and the Tic were reclusive and more than a bit racist towards normal humans, what we get from the book tells us that their civilization was sustainable (more so than than that of normal humans centuries ago) and if it weren't for the polar shift, who knows what could have come out of it. Now, mankind's extraterrestrial descendants, after 5 MILLION years of development, are actually worse in those terms than either the Hitek/Tic or the original humans, stripping the planet bare in just a century and then moving on like lowly parasites.
  • Gaia's Lament: Most modern animals are extinct. Fortunately, things improve when the Hiteks engineer new human species to fill these vacant ecological niches. Then the descendants of the original humans return from space and kill those off.
  • Genetic Memory: The self-explanatory Memory People, which are noted to have memories of places they've never been and things they've never done, including spontaneously re-emerging memories of boat-building, fire-making, and metalworks. Possibly one of the biggest examples of Artistic License – Biology in any of Dixon's works.
  • Genre Shift: After civilized humanity and its offshoots go extinct, the book's tone shifts into that of a nature documentary. Justified in part due to many of the hominids barely having any substantial resemblance to original humans. And then it shifts again following the return of mankind's spacefaring descendants...
  • The Ghost: A subterranean species of hominid is listed on the evolutionary tree at the start of the book. One of its ancestors is shown exploring a cave, and a later incident is mentioned in which a surface-hominid vanishes after sleeping near a cave many thousands of years later, but the Underground Monkey variant is never shown or described.
  • Green Aesop: The early chapters in particular touch on issues relating to climate change, overpollution, and overpopulation. Later on, the Memory People refuse to utilize any kind of technology, thanks to their genetic memories reminding them of the consequences of the waste and destruction that ancient humanity perpetuated.
  • Horde of Alien Locusts: The descendants of Mankind (more specifically that of Jimez Smoot) are this, as they strip the Earth of it's resources in a matter of a few centuries.
  • Horse of a Different Colour: The Symbionts, and their descendants, the Hunters ride around on larger tundra-dwellers. Later on the colonizers modify an existing species into the steed species shown on the cover.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Due to the massive genetic tinkering/fiddling/manipulation/outright butchering that humanity performs on its own collective self that starts this whole bizarre mess to begin with. Although both regular humans and Hitek try to justify it as either Utopia or more so base survival justifies the means.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: Well, technically they're not humans anymore, but the "water sense" and race-memories of some post-human species are really stretching the idea of speculative biology.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Sort of played straight. Some of the new post-human species are depicted eating other members of other human species.
  • Irony Jimez Smoot reflects on the ecological catastrophe the colonists fleeing Earth are leaving behind, and tells himself that they will need to do better next time. Millions of years later, his descendants, transformed by evolution on such alien worlds that their minds no longer recognize their ancestral home, return to an ecologically rejuvenated Earth and destroy it more thoroughly than any human civilization in a few short centuries, with the implication that they've been traveling the stars and doing it to ''every'' planet they encounter with a biosphere, over and over.
  • Language Drift: Implied to have occurred in the initial centuries into the future, with certain terms (Hitek, Andlas) being either corruptions or evolutions of English (High Tech, Handlers respectively)
  • Let's Meet the Meat: Many, many of the altered humans that were later used as new sources of meat — predominantly with a being known only in the book as a "Engineered Food Creature" that was another engineered human that grew as "mounds of fat and flesh, fed by chemical nutrients via a mass of pipes and tubes inserted directly into the fleshy blob. After it grows large enough, sections of its meat, tissue and body fat are butchered off..." while it's still alive! Bon appétit!.
  • Little People: Some temperate woodland-dwellers evolved into the diminutive Islanders via island dwarfism, similar to the real-life "hobbits" discovered in Indonesia in 2003.
  • Ludd Was Right:
    • Various groups of normal, non-genetically modified humans are noted to have reverted to a pastoral lifestyle of hunting, farming and fishing, with various "civilized" enclaves of original humans, known as "Andlas," coexisting with the Hitek and the Tics. However, despite their embrace of this simple lifestyle, they're just as hard-hit by the reversal of the poles and go extinct at the same time as the Tics.
    • Later on the Memory People refuse to use any kind of technology, thanks to their Genetic Memory reminding them of the consequences of the waste and destruction that ancient humanity perpetuated. But it's zig-zagged, in that their later extinction is attributed to that very refusal, and with it the refusal to adapt and change.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The Aquatics can be best described as manatee-people with hands and gills.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: One species of hominid evolves into something convergent with vampire bats, clinging to and feeding off a much larger, bloated hominid species.
  • Planet Looters: After humanity's descendants return in an unrecognizably altered form, they exploit the planet and its remaining non-sapient inhabitants to extinction and then simply leave — presumably to do it again to another planet.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Explored to a degree, especially early on when future humans and their engineered descendants stumble on the decaying ruins of civilization. Eventually however, all traces of it are lost forever.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: The book ends with the interstellar human descendants ravaging most of the Earth beyond habitation and leaving for the stars again, but noting that life still survives around abyssal hydrothermal vents, including one last species of Aquatic post-human that still retains some vestige of human-like intelligence.
    "Maybe someday it will be possible for its descendants to travel upwards, and even possible for them to live in conditions that are totally alien to it, if they can change enough.
    Maybe someday..."
  • Rip Van Winkle: The (male) Hibernators and their descendants the Planters have adapted to sleep through the long winters of the new ice age, with the Planters able to live for hundreds of years.
  • Space People: The vacuumorphs.
  • Speculative Biology: One of the most disturbing examples.
  • Starfish Aliens: The descendants of mankind's interstellar colonies can be considered this in ~5.000.000 AD, having changed biologically, psychologically and intellectually to such a degree that they can't recognise each other as beings that had the same ancestors. The ones that arrive on Earth are never seen outside of pressurized suits, since after hundreds of thousands of years of genetic and evolutionary change they cannot tolerate Earth's atmosphere.
  • Stepford Smiler: The Hiteks, as a result of being a modern, overmedicated Prozac nation taken to its logical extreme. Their cybernetic "Cradles" are equipped with drug feeds that are used not just to treat depression or other mental illnesses, but any negative emotion whatsoever, both trivial and meaningful. We see in two separate vignettes one Hitek who uses drugs to silence both his fear when he trips over a small bump in the floor and his racist disgust at being touched by his human domestic servants and another where a different one uses them to erase the sadness of his girlfriend dying of a heart attack during sex.
  • Sudden Downer Ending: After millions of years of natural evolution among the post-humans and Earth's biosphere starting to heal after the last sapient humans became extinct, the space-faring descendants of humans which escaped before the total collapse of civilization suddenly return, now so alien they no longer recognize the Earth as their original motherland, devastating the surface of the planet beyond recognition and wiping out almost all life. However...
  • Token Aquatic Race: The Aquamorphs are humans modified with gills and look vaguely froglike, but are unable to reproduce, and go extinct after they have served their purpose. Genetic engineers later create the Aquatics, which are able to reproduce, and evolve on their own after the collapse of civilization. The oceans overall get much less focus than the land in this book. However, a descendant of the Aquatics is ultimately the last human species left on Earth.
  • Transhuman: The entire basis of the book is this as it details what humanity might appear as in the future via process of natural evolution (and some genetic/cybernetic modification early on). However the argument can also be made that according to the literal meaning of that term "Transhuman" is supposed to be something above or beyond ordinary human levels and the majority of human species that are shown seem to barely have any real human sapience or ability.

Alternative Title(s): Man After Man