April 4, 2014 | 34
Some considerable years ago – February 2007, actually – I made the decision to write a short Tet Zoo article on speculative zoology. It was on the biology of Godzilla, and I published it with trepidation, my concern being that people would balk at the fact that I was covering an imaginary creature, not a real one. I needn’t have worried. It turns out that everybody loves speculative zoology, the topic being such a perennial favourite that I’ve since covered it repeatedly on Tet Zoo (a list of links is provided below).
Speculative zoology now has such a large presence in the online community that we can talk of a Speculative Zoology Movement that sometimes spills out into the mainstream and gets onto the TV or cinema screen. Even better, there are sometimes weird crossovers between speculative creatures and reality. Memo Kosemen’s 2013 book All Your Yesterdays features John Mezsaros’s hypothetical suspension-feeding anomalocarid Ceticaris. As some of you will know, this imaginary creature presaged the discovery of the genuine Early Cambrian anomalocarid Tamisiocaris, described in Nature in March 2014 by Vinther et al. (2014) and included within the newly recognised clade Cetiocaridae. The latter group was named specifically with reference to Mezsaros’s invention.
One person above all others can be regarded as the ‘parent’ of the Speculative Zoology Movement, his several books and innumerable ideas inspiring virtually everything that’s appeared since. I refer of course to writer, artist, editor, consultant and visionary Dougal Dixon, author of a huge number of books and winner of an intimidating number of awards relating to educational journalism and authorship. Dougal has been the go-to person for speculative zoology ever since the 1981 publication of his famous, beautifully illustrated book After Man (Dixon 1981). This was followed by The New Dinosaurs (Dixon 1988), a book that told the story of a parallel Earth where the end-Cretaceous extinction event never occurred, and Man After Man (Dixon 1990), a fantastic and slightly disturbing look at a possible future for humankind. Dougal was also substantially involved in the TV series The Future Is Wild and wrote the accompanying book (Dixon & Adams 2004). And then there’s Greenworld (Dixon 2010), on which more below.
Dougal was born in Scotland but lives here in southern England. We’ve met on numerous occasions and I’ve rarely failed to pester him with questions about After Man and his various other projects. And so it recently occurred to me that I really should take advantage of this privileged position. Back in August 2013, Dougal kindly agreed to be interviewed exclusively for Tet Zoo. As you’ll see below, we covered the back-story to After Man, discussed the inspirations behind certain of his creatures and the way the accompanying artwork came to be, and also spoke about projects that haven’t yet become that well known in Europe or the Americas.
Anyway, without further ado…
Darren: First of all, do you realise how important and inspiration, how loved and cherished, the ‘After’ trilogy has been?
Dougal: Certainly. I get emails from established, professional people in the world of biology and palaeontology who say that my work inspired them 30 years ago. Some of these people were amateurs or beginners when they read the books.
Darren: Do you follow the speculative zoology movement – are you aware of such things as SpecWorld (the Speculative Dinosaur Project) or the future creatures in Primeval?
Dougal: I have of course seen Primeval.
Darren: I always thought the Future Predator was inspired by your flightless bats (especially by the Night stalker of After Man)….
Dougal: Oh yes, I’m sure that’s not a coincidence. I’ve been told that Tim Haines has a copy of After Man on his bookshelf.
Darren: Right. I asked him quite a few times about that (I worked at Impossible Pictures for a while a few years back) and he always cleverly evaded me. Moving on… can you remember (this is going back a long way!) what the original inspiration was for After Man?
Dougal: As a child I was always struck by The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells, in particular by the part at the end where he goes to the far future and everything has changed: there are the giant crabs and so on. I was always artistic as a kid. I remember at the age of 8 or 10 years old, drawing comic strips, and one of them was actually my own retelling of The Time Machine. I had fun creating my own future creatures that had evolved from those of the modern day, featured there in the background.
Darren: [incredulously] You came up with that stuff as a kid?
Dougal: Well, yeah, not that there was any scientific point to it: it was just the background to the story. The next stage really – I was a teenager, so we’re in the 1960s now – would be when I was influenced by the conservationist movement that became important at the time. I remember in particular the ‘Save the tiger’ campaign. I was watching a TV programme about tiger conservation with my Dad, he turned to me and said “Why save the tiger? The tiger will become extinct. Everything becomes extinct, other things evolve”. And I thought – that’s a very unhelpful attitude, but it basically started me on a learning curve about evolution, and I essentially realised that he was right: everything does become extinct, other organisms develop to take their place. And I began to think to myself – just as idle musings – if things do become extinct, what evolves to take their place? Move on now to the late 1970s, I met a friend of mine I hadn’t seen from a long time and he was wearing a ‘Save the Whale’ badge. Well, that sparked off the whole idea again. I thought to myself: suppose the whale does become extinct, what might evolve to take its place? That, of course, is where the whole idea of the giant, whale-like penguins of After Man came from.
Darren: The Vortex.
Dougal: Ah yes, you remember the name, I’m impressed. A couple of weeks later, I thought: I could use this. I could devise a popular-level book on evolution, but a book that did something quite different. Other popular-level books used evolution to tell the story of the past, but nobody had taken the whole process – the observable trends – and projected them into the future. I thought: I could do this. At this time, I was working in publishing – I was involved in encyclopedias – and I knew how to present a crazy idea to a publisher with a likelihood of being taken seriously. So I decided to create illustrated spreads, dummy text and so on… I took the idea to publishers the next time I was in London, and the rest is history.
Darren: So, obviously the concept of After Man was a great idea that you’d had for a long time, but they (= the publishers) got it straight away? They understand the concept of the book you were aiming to create?
Dougal: Yes, I was very excited about the project, and there were lots of ideas about how it could be tied in to broader efforts concerning publicity. I was told by the publisher that a science-based radio programme on Radio 4 would be interested in covering the story behind the book, and that it would be Barry Cox reviewing it [Prof. C. B. Cox, then of King’s College London]. Well, when the review happened, let’s just say that it was a total demolition job. Cox hated it. And I thought… well, that’s it, I gave it my best shot. However, as other reviews began to roll in, things changed – certainly, the review in New Scientist changed the very low opinion I had of myself. BBC Wildlife and the Smithsonian’s magazine, they also did much to enhance the book’s credibility, and I also had publicity tours both in the UK and the USA.
Darren: It must have been very exciting. So far as I know, this was your first ‘big thing’.
Dougal: Yes. It made me think: there’s a future in this. That is, in popular-level books that use fictitious examples of factual processes: there’s definitely room for a few more. And that’s why I came up with the idea for The New Dinosaurs. Again, I wanted to do the same sort of thing but, this time, I was aiming to create a popular-level book on zoogeography, using fictitious examples to show what the dinosaurs might perhaps be like if they hadn’t become extinct.
Darren: That raises a question I have about that book. Were you coming up with the speculative animals first, or were you led by the zoogeography angle?
Dougal: It would have been a bit of both, I think (hard to remember all the details after all this time, of course). On balance, it was the pushing of the zoogeography – a fairly unfamiliar aspect to so many people – that was the main impetus here. I often wonder, however, with these books whether the people that look at them simply see them as picture books of funny animals.
Darren: I think that’s definitely true, to a degree, for some people… but not for the ones that matter! Quite a few people have said that some of the ideas that feature in The New Dinosaurs presaged modern discoveries. You’ve got small, tree-climbing theropods, fuzzy integument on dinosaurs, striding, terrestrial pterosaurs…
Dougal: I remember at the time thinking that – to make this work, I’m going to have to embrace the extreme left-wing of vertebrate palaeontology, so that’s when I started reading work by Bakker and people like that, even though I was very much a traditionalist (in terms of dinosaurs) when I needed to be.
Darren: So you were definitely inspired by the controversial ideas of the Dinosaur Revolution during this project?
Dougal: Oh yes, very much.
Darren: There have been a couple of recent articles that have drawn attention to this. There’s an online article by Brian Switek where he said that things considered pretty crazy in The New Dinosaurs now appear on the ball, or at least pretty reasonable, in view of recent discoveries [that article is here].
Dougal: Well, I’ve got pterosaurs running around like giraffes!
Darren: Exactly, yes. So the animals of The New Dinosaurs weren’t coincidental inventions: they were extrapolations based on what Bakker and Paul had said. Having said that, there are creatures in The New Dinosaurs that don’t look modern in terms of their anatomy and/or behaviour. There’s a specialised scavenging tyrannosaur – the Gourmand – for example. That’s not a Bakkerian dinosaur, it’s a Beverly Halstead dinosaur: it’s a giant, sluggish, carrion-eating tyrannosaur.
Dougal: Remember that the whole of The New Dinosaurs was very much a cognitive exercise in the same vein as After Man. I was interested in patterns, and pushing the patterns to an extreme. So, in the lineage leading up to the Gourmand, the idea is that we’re seeing a pattern in which the forelimbs become smaller and smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing.
Darren: If you were to do The New Dinosaurs today, would you do it any different?
Dougal: Yes I would. If you’re asking for specific examples – it’s difficult to know where to start…
Darren: Absolutely. Obviously we have so many feathery theropods now they’ve even been described as mundane, plus now there are even filamentous structures on ornithischians. One of the things I like about the book is that it doesn’t just depict a ‘dinosaurs only’ world. There are mammals in there, there are big pterosaurs, some plesiosaurs. One of the things I think we’ve learnt about the Mesozoic that makes it more interesting is that it’s not just a ‘dinosaur theme park’: you’ve got these other groups, and since the book was published, since the 1990s, we’ve learnt that, for example, in Late Cretaceous South America we’ve got an enormous radiation of terrestrial or semi-terrestrial crocodyliforms living alongside theropods. Obviously crocs went on to have their own, rich Cenozoic history, but if you have more complex animal communities at the end of the Cretaceous, and then don’t have the end-Cretaceous event, you end up with a completely different Cenozoic and modern day biota, perhaps with these groups doing crazy things that we don’t see in our timeline.
Dougal: Indeed. Imagine then, that, with the formation of the South American landbridge, we’d see migration and diversification involving these animals as they moved north.
Darren: Greg Paul did a review of The New Dinosaurs. It’s kind of critical, but it does basically say at the end “Well done, it takes balls to do something like this and I respect that”. It gives him an excuse to invent his own ‘modern’ non-bird dinosaurs, including weird new horned dinosaurs, cursorial tyrannosaurids…
Dougal: Yes, I’ve seen that illustration.
Darren: Going back to the subject of pitching these books to publishers in the first place, this would mean that it was your artwork, your illustrations, that led to these projects being a success. What I’m getting at here is that… thinking of, say, the future animals of After Man, we know that you invented these creatures as extrapolations based on extant animals. And I’ve seen your illustrations, the models you’ve made; I know you’re a very talented artist. So why, in these books, don’t we see your artwork, your illustrations? Instead we see depictions of these animals re-imagined by other artists (usually wildlife artists): people like Denys Ovenden, Philip Hood, those kind of people. Is the decision to use art by these people made by the publishers?
Dougal: It is a publisher decision, yes. At the beginning of the production of After Man, I did produce detailed illustrations for the artists to follow… and the artists would ignore them, and draw any old science fiction-based creature. So I really did have to bring them to heel: I ended up producing draft line illustrations that were so detailed, they just needed to ink them in to produce the final products. It’s a shame. In reality, my stuff should have been in there, yes.
Darren: Where are all those illustrations of yours now? Do you still have them? Keeping in mind that the world of publishing is very different now thanks to self-publishing, ebooks and online pdfs and so on, I just wonder whether you’ve ever thought of getting them published?
Dougal: I do still have them. As for getting them published… I hadn’t thought of that, actually.
Dougal: So, we’ve spoken now about After Man, which is about future evolution, and The New Dinosaurs, which is about zoogeography. Then there’s Man After Man – a project I was never keen to be involved in, the title of which was originally being kept for a project of my own. And that project again involved fictitious examples of factual processes. I thought: right, let’s have the current world collapsing through overpopulation, famine and so on, and the idea that mankind needs to escape destruction. What does mankind do? Invents time travel and moves 50 million years into the future and sets up civilization then. Then what we’ll have is that all the man-made catastrophes, all the ecological disasters… they happen all over again. So I’ve got this world already created in After Man, and I’m now going to destroy it… this was going to be Man After Man. But, the name Man After Man was taken for that other disaster of a project.
Darren: So, Man After Man would originally have been near-future humanity’s impact on the far-future creatures of After Man?
Dougal: Yes. What I did with that concept, quite a few years previously, is create an alien biota for an Earth-type planet in a far solar system, but based on the same biochemical processes that created life today. It was actually done as a design exercise to show to the local science fiction group. I had the whole ecosystem worked out. I thought: I’m going to use the Man After Man scenario on that. I’m going to have colony ships going to this planet. This became a book, called Greenworld. The concept is that human colonists arrive in a pristine natural environment and immediately set about screwing it all up. The way it’s arranged is as a series of short stories that follow different generations of the same few families, thereby building up into a sort of dynastic epic, covering a thousand years of colonisation on this planet. The planet ends up as a smoking ruin, echoing the planet that was left behind at the start of the story. All of the illustrations are done by me, for a change (except for a couple of things that involved techniques that I’m unfamiliar with). The illustrations reflect the idea that the reader is basically eavesdropping on the lives of the characters of the book. We get to see excerpts from field guides, from herbals, and recipes, warning signs, bounty notices, advertisements, and all sorts of stuff like this – the idea being that, if you look at this combination of images, you build up an idea of what the biota is like.
Darren: This is great. And has this material been collated? I mean, are there plans to get it published?
Dougal: It has been published, as a book, but only in Japan. My stuff is extremely popular in Japan. In fact my name has a hell of a lot more clout in America and Japan than it does here in the UK.
Darren: I do recall seeing some of the images from Greenworld on TV. I remember in particular the Strida creatures.
Dougal: That’s right – this was before I put it together, so parts of the project appeared here and there. There was the BBC programme Natural History of an Alien…
Darren: Yes. This featured the tripodal leaping thing and the giant conch thing?
Dougal: That’s right. How’s your Japanese?
Darren: [lame joke involving Kaiju names deleted]. Let’s talk about The Future is Wild. The book is co-authored with John Adams, is that right?
Dougal: Yes, Adams (now Joanna Adams) is a producer of television documentaries with a very good track record, who had always wanted to do a project based around the concept of evolution projected into the future. So, when this started crystallising in his mind about 15 years ago, he brought together a few consultants who might have ideas along these lines, like R. McNeill Alexander and Jack Cohen. And Jack said “Have you read After Man, by Dougal Dixon?”. So that’s where my name was mentioned, and hence I became part of the project. I was brought in as a consultant but, what with all these other consultants, my role evolved to become that of a designer, inventing the animals that had been suggested by this suite of consultants. I ended up designing all the animals to their briefs and passing along the designs to the animation studio. Since I’m an established writer, I also got to write the tie-in book. So I didn’t start any of this and was a mere hired hand in it.
Darren: Ah. My imagining was always that they’d seen After Man, thought “this would make a great TV series”, but then found that – due to copyright or some other reason – they were unable to use the original creatures and hence had to invent new ones, similar but slightly different.
Dougal: Well, there is a constraint of that sort. By that time, DreamWorks SKG had bought the rights to After Man and optioned it, so we could do nothing with the original animals meaning, indeed, that a whole new suite of beasts had to be invented.
Darren: So we have giant flightless gannets instead of giant penguins…
Dougal: Exactly. They came up with giant penguins, but then the lawyers were — no no, you can’t!
Darren: Did anything ever come of the DreamWorks project?
Dougal: No. DreamWorks finally abandoned it and it was then picked up by Paramount. It’s still getting optioned; in fact the option’s up for renewal this month, I need to find out what’s going on there. [Banner below from The Future Is Wild website.]
Darren: In the Earth of The Future is Wild, Amazonia is now a grassland, what’s currently the whole of Bangladesh is now flooded, forming the great Bengal Swamp…
Dougal: Yes, and this is completely a different tack from what I did in After Man. The geography had changed in After Man because of plate tectonics, but the various vegetation zones and biomes – I thought I’d keep them as close as possible to those of today, since the reader – being faced with all these new and terrible animals – will at least recognise the background.
Darren: There are four-winged birds in The Future is Wild called windrunners, specialised for flight over the Himalayan Plateau.
Dougal: They were created by Phil Currie, the consultant providing ornithological expertise on the project. I was amazed: a palaeontologist coming up with speculative evolution, with something as radical as four-winged birds. I thought: let’s go for it, this is going to be spectacular.
Darren: I always wondered if it was a coincidence that the windrunner was invented at about the same time as Microraptor was announced.
Dougal: No, it [= the invention of the windrunner] was before that… unless Phil knew about Microraptor before that.
Darren: Well, my thinking was that windrunners were so weird, so revelatory – why would anyone create a four-winged bird? – that a coincidence here would be remarkable, but I’ve since remembered that there was this early 20th century concept of the Tetrapteryx. In other words, there were ideas about four-winged fliers long prior to the discovery of Microraptor.
Dougal: I should finish here by saying that Jo Adams and team were all fired up to work on a big screen version of The Future is Wild with Warner Bros (I think) and had raised the funding for the television series The Future is Wild 2. However, on the big screen side, Avatar had raised the bar so high that Warner Bros (I think) pulled out. And on the small screen side, Discovery Channel announced that they were going to stop doing documentaries; instead, they were going over to dancing chefs and celebrity idiots and so the funding for that collapsed. Not a good year!
Darren: Any future ideas? What’s next? You’ve spoken about Greenworld.
Dougal: Yes, an English language edition of that needs to appear.
Darren: After Man has been repackaged a few times – there are several different designs with different covers. I saw one recently with a Night stalker on the cover. Oh – any thoughts on the 2013 movie After Earth?
Dougal: I haven’t even seen it, but I’m told by people who have seen it that it has no connection whatsoever with After Man. In any case, it more or less sank without a trace.
So there we have it. I hope you enjoyed this transcribed interview, and I hope that it provided interesting – and new – background to Dougal’s several projects, all of which have been a major inspiration to so many of us. This interview wouldn’t have happened without Dougal’s co-operation, and I sincerely thank him for his patience, kindness, time and assistance.
Refs – -
- . 2010. Greenworld (two volumes). Diamond, Tokyo.
Vinther, J., Stein, M. Longrich, N. R. & Harper, D. A. T. 2014. A suspension-feeding anomalocarid from the Early Cambrian. Nature 507, 496-500.