Friday, 22 April 2005

The Future is Wild – Douglas Dixon & John Adams ****

Subtitled “a natural history of the future”, this book (and presumably the accompanying 12 part TV series that the book accompanies) is a fascinating reverse of all those books looking backwards in time at evolution. Here the authors have beautifully speculated on how things will go in the future.
The book is split into three broad sections. One, set 5 million years in the future finds a largely unchanged world in the grip of an ice age. Here the animals may be unfamiliar, but they are clearly derived from current forms. In the other two sections, looking 100 and 200 million years ahead, much bigger changes have occurred. Continental drift has resulted in a reshaping of the earth’s surface. Creatures are developing significantly, with some creatures leaving the sea (imagine a land-based giant squid), birds taking to the water, and descendents of fish flying. Highest in yuck factor is probably some of the insect life, while most striking are the envisaged developments from jellyfish, huge and beautiful floating cities of life.
It’s stunningly illustrated (if one or two of the creatures verge on the cartoon) and much of the speculation is fascinating – all in all, an excellent achievement.
There are a couple of quibbles. Humanity is dismissed rather summarily. We are assumed to die out in a few thousand years because of the “devastating effects of our energy consumption” and because of the return of the ice age. These are rather weak assumptions, given human flexibility. Certainly we wouldn’t be still living in the UK under a polar ice cap, but that hardly excludes the tropics. It’s not that we couldn’t be wiped out, but there’s no logic behind the assumption, which is mainly made to conveniently get us out of the way – that should have been explicitly stated. Also, all the animals have names. This is nice, but who is supposed to have given them the names? Okay, it’s a bit pedantic, but this just seems weird when you get a comment like “it is tracking a herd of scrofas and their young, called scroflets.” Called scroflets by whom?
Anyone familiar with DK’s very rigid format might be a bit surprised by this book. Not only do the authors get their names on the cover (something DK discourages), but inside the book flows from page to page rather than being in two page chunks – and there’s a lot more solid text than you would expect in a DK book. That’s because this isn’t really one of theirs. The older US edition is from a different publisher, and the pages look identical. Although the normal DK format is probably more young reader friendly, this topic does well from having the extra flow – perhaps we could see more DK books breaking the mould in the future.
Review by Brian Clegg

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