Friday, July 6, 2018

Peter Ward & Alexis Rockman's Monsters I Want to Fight - The Future Evolutionaries

Future Evolution, written by Peter Ward, illustrated by Alexis Rockman, is not another After Man or another The Future is Wild.
Instead it's almost the antithesis.
Ward and Rockman don't imagine a future without humans or without our livestock and pets, where the remaining wild animals have re-inherited the Earth. They don't imagine a future full of new cool-looking megafauna, a return to 20-foot tall rodents and 100-foot long lizards.
Fig 1 - Possible future cladogram (bottom to top) - original dandelion, cactus-like, aquatic, arboreal, carnivorous, epiphytic. painted by Alexis Rockman
Ward posits (and Rockman paints) a future that is grounded in the likely continuation of both the human species and the current human civilization. The future they foresee is one of increasingly smaller and more isolated "island" habitats, where small ecosystems are separated from each other by impassable and inhospitable lines of building and infrastructure, where the farm and the garbage dump are at least as common of habitats as the forest and the prairie.
Their future is mostly full of small animals. There is, quite literally, no room in the world they see us building for animals even as large as the horse and the cow. Speaking of, their future is also mostly full of animals descended from livestock, from pets, from parasites and pests. They foresee us remaking a world that will have no room for today's wildlife, except in zoos, where they will be preserved as evolutionary dead-ends. Their future does see a re-proliferation of species, a branching out and diversification to re-fill all the abandoned ecological niches. But they predict that the progenitors will all be plants and animals that are connected to humans, the ones we raise, the ones that thrive because of or despite us. Many children, but few parents. A solipsistic world, where everything that exists lives because its ancestors had some connection to humanity, where everything disconnected from us has died out. (As I said, this future is virtually the opposite of Dougal Dixon's After Man, although it shares some similarity with the core conceit of Man After Man.)
Fig 2 - Possible future cladogram (bottom to top) - timber rattler, walking, pygmy, millipede, giant, flying, swimming types. painted by Alexis Rockman
They build their future world on eight principles, about how previous mass extinctions (and post-extinction recoveries) have gone, how the current ongoing one might be different and why.
For gaming purposes, most of these principles are irrelevant. But a few strike me as useful, especially if you move from the implicitly post-apocalyptic Dark Age setting of original D&D to the explicitly post-apocalyptic future world of Metamorphosis Alpha or Gamma World or Mutant Future or Crawling Under a Broken Moon or Mutant Crawl Classics.
"4. The modern mass extinction is different from any other in Earth's long history."
"Global terrestrial biodiversity will fall to end-Paleozoic levels because of continued extinction and the functional removal of barriers to migration."
"5. All mass extinctions have been followed by a recovery interval, characterized by a new fauna composed of animals that have either survived the extinction or evolved from such survivors."
"In this case, the recovery fauna is already in place, and consists mainly of domesticated animals and plants, as well as "weedy" species capable of living amid high populations of humans."
"6. There will be new species yet to evolve."
"Many of these new species will be the result of jumping genes, as DNA from organisms created under laboratory conditions by biotechnology firms escapes into the wild."

"Others will be mainly small species adapted to living in the new world of spreading cities and farms. The new animal and plant species will thus evolve in the niches and corners of a world dominated by Homo sapiens."
"The rules of speciation have changed: few large animals will evolve as long as humanity exists in large numbers, and as long as our planet remains divided into innumerable small islands."
"7. Our species,
Homo sapiens, can look forward to both evolution and long-term survival. Of all the animal species on Earth, we may be the least susceptible to extinction: humanity is functionally extinction-proof."
"8. There will never be a new dominant fauna on Earth other than humanity and its domesticated vassals until we go extinct - and if we succeed in reaching the stars, that may never happen."
Fig 3 - Possible future cladogram (bottom to top) - original crow, vulture, raptor, shoe bill, wading, honey-eating, ratite. painting by Alexis Rockman
So how can we translate these ideas into game-able advice? (Aside from placing the twenty-five "future evolutionaries" specifically pictured here into your game?)
You don't need to go as far as eliminating every wild plant an animal from your games. But I would say that, if you want your game to feel like it takes place in a future where the planet has been indelibly marked by humanity's fingerprints, one way to show those marks is to increase the prevalence of monsters derived from domesticated animals, increase the prevalence of domesticated plants as set-dressing, beyond what you would ordinarily consider. And if you want your game to feel suitably post-apocalyptic, one way to do that is to have fewer progenitor species giving rise to more variant descendants, showing that there was a bottleneck, a great extinction, that everything that now lives evolved from what little survived.
A future where the players travel through a jungle of thousand-foot tall trees before finding a clearing where an army of tiger-women is fighting an army of polar-bear-men feels post-human. So much time has passed that we are forgotten, the fact that we ever existed at all is irrelevant.
But a future where the players travel through a forest of hundred-foot-tall cornstalks and fifty-foot dandelions, before finding a clearing where calico-housecat-women fight lamb-boys or teddy-bear-robots? Where they discover that their path though the forest is being cleared by a 10' cube-shaped pig? Where the corn-and-dandelion forest gives way to a Christmas-tree-and-Halloween-pumpkin forest? Or where all the forests are islands, surrounded by oceans of pavement? That's a future where the presence of humanity is still felt, where it is inescapable, suffocating.
Whether or not the players meet any humans, the fact of human existence is still obviously the dominant force shaping the world. If the humans they do meet have only stone-age technology, if they are trapped in a world their ancestors made that they can no longer reshape or even comprehend, that drives home just how apocalyptic the apocalypse must have been. The world might be post-apocalyptic, but it is not post-human, certainly not post-the-relevance-of-human-civilization.
Numenara posits a world where neo-medieval humans live among the relics of incomprehensible super-civilizations. But most other post-apocalyptic games imagine a nearer-term future, where it is essentially our civilization that has become the incomprehensible forebear to the survivors, and where a great deal of dramatic irony derives from the fact that what is incomprehensible to the neo-stone-age humans who live there is perfectly comprehensible to us. Peter Ward's and Alexis Rockman's ideas provide some insight for building a world like that.
Fig 4 - Possible future cladogram (bottom to top) - pig, genetically engineered, rhino-like, aquatic, pygmy, giraffe-like, garbage eating. painting by Alexis Rockman


  1. Excellent post. I'll have to look for that book. I do think there is a strong likelihood that wild species won't disappear entirely--if only because people preserve their genetics. I don't see why zoos would cease to exist, and I think that might well be populated by prehistoric genetic simulacra as well as cloned fauna of today.

    1. For sure, Trey. I also hope they're wrong that zoos will be the ONLY places we'll see today's wild animals anymore.

      I wanted to write about it not because I thought it was more accurate or realistic than "After Man", but (a) honestly, mostly because I loved the cladogram art, and (b) because I think it's more useful than "After Man" is for populating NEAR-future wandering monster tables.

  2. I have 'After Man' (just reprinted btw) and 'The New Dinosaurs' and now I have to buy this book.

    1. Fair warning, Moses McDermott, unlike Dougal Dixon's books, this one is like 75-90% text, although the text is interesting and the paintings are lovely.