Man, the conqueror of Nature, died Monday night of a petroleum overdose, the medical examiner’s office confirmed this morning. The abstract representation of the human race was 408 years old. The official announcement has done nothing to quell the rumors of suicide and substance abuse that have swirled around the death scene since the first announcement yesterday morning, adding new legal wrinkles to the struggle already under way over Man’s inheritance.
Man’s closest associates disagree about what happened. His longtime friend and confidant Technology thinks it was suicide. “Sure, Man liked to have a good time,” he said at a press conference Tuesday evening, “and he was a pretty heavy user, but it wasn’t like he was out of control or anything. No, I’m sure he did it on purpose. Just a couple of weeks ago we were hanging out at his place, looking up at the moon and talking about the trips we made out there, and he turned to me and said, ‘You know, Tech, that was a good time—a really good time. I wonder if I’ll ever do anything like that again.’ He got into moods like that more and more often in the last few years. I tried to cheer him up, talking about going to Mars or what have you, and he’d go along with it but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it.”
Other witnesses told a different story. “It was terrifying,” said a housekeeper who requested that her name not be given. “He was using more and more of the stuff every day, shooting it up morning, noon and night, and when his connections couldn’t get him as much as he wanted, he’d go nuts. You’d hear him screaming at the top of his lungs and pounding his fists on the walls. Everybody on the staff would hide whenever that happened, and it happened more and more often—the amount he was using was just unbelievable. Some of his friends tried to talk him into getting help, or even just cutting back a little on his petroleum habit, but he wouldn’t listen.”
The medical examiner’s office and the police are investigating Man’s death right now. Until their report comes out, the tragic end of humanity’s late self-image remains shrouded in mystery and speculation.
A Tumultuous Family Saga
“He was always a rebel,” said Clio, the muse of history, in an exclusive interview in her office on Parnassus this morning. “That was partly his early environment, of course. He was born in the household of Sir Francis Bacon, remember, and brought up by some of the best minds of seventeenth-century Europe; an abstract image of humanity raised by people like that wasn’t likely to sit back and leave things as they were, you know. Still, I think there were strong family influences too. His father was quite the original figure himself, back in the day.”
Though almost forgotten nowadays, Man’s father Everyman, the abstract representation of medieval humanity, was as mediagenic in his own time as his son became later on. The star of a wildly popular morality play and the subject of countless biographies, Everyman was born in extreme poverty in a hovel in post-Roman Europe, worked his way up to become a wealthy and influential figure in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, then stepped aside from his financial and political affairs to devote his last years to religious concerns. Savage quarrels between father and son kept the broadsheet and pamphlet press fed with juicy stories all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and eventually led to their final breach over Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1859.
By that time Man was already having problems with substance abuse. “He was just using coal at first,” Technology reminisced. “Well, let’s be fair, we both were. That was the hot new drug in those days. It was cheap, you could get it without too much hassle, and everybody on the cutting edge was using it. I remember one trip we took together—it was on one of the early railroads, at thirty miles an hour. We thought that was really fast. Were we innocent back then, or what?”
Clio agreed with that assessment. “I don’t think Man had any idea what he was getting into, when he started abusing coal,” she said. “It was an easy habit to fall into, very popular in avant-garde circles just then, and nobody yet knew much about the long term consequences of fossil fuel abuse. Then, of course, he started his campaign to conquer Nature, and he found out very quickly that he couldn’t keep up the pace he’d set for himself without artificial help. That was when the real tragedy began.”
The Conquest of Nature
It’s an open question when Man first decided to conquer Nature. “The biographers all have their own opinions on that,” Clio explained, gesturing at a shelf loaded with books on Man’s dramatic and controversial career. “Some trace it back to the influence of his foster-father Francis Bacon, or the other mentors and teachers he had in his early days. Others say that the inspiration came from the crowd he ran with when he was coming of age in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He used to tell interviewers that it was a family thing, that everyone in his family all the way back to the Stone Age had been trying to conquer Nature and he was just the one who finally succeeded, but that won’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Examine the career of Everyman, for example, and you’ll find that he wasn’t interested in conquering Nature; he wanted to conquer himself.”
“The business about conquering Nature?” Technology said. “He got into that back when we were running around being young and crazy. I think he got the idea originally from his foster-father or one of the other old guys who taught him when he was a kid, but as far as I know it wasn’t a big deal to him until later. Now I could be wrong, you know. I didn’t know him that well in those days; I was mostly just doing my thing then, digging mines, building water mills, stuff like that. We didn’t get really close until we both got involved in this complicated coal deal; we were both using, but I was dealing, too, and I could get it cheaper than anybody else—I was using steam, and none of the other dealers knew how to do that. So we got to be friends and we had some really wild times together, and now and then when we were good and ripped, he’d get to talking about how Nature ought to belong to him and one of these days he was going to hire some soldiers and just take it.
“Me, I couldn’t have cared less, except that Man kept on bringing me these great technical problems, really sweet little puzzles, and I’ve always been a sucker for those. He figured out how I was getting the coal for him so cheap, you see, and guessed that I could take those same tricks and use them for his war against Nature. For me, it was just a game, for Nature, against Nature, I couldn’t care less. Just give me a problem and let me get to work on it, and I’m happy.
“But it wasn’t just a game for him. I think it was 1774 when he really put me to work on it. He’d hired some mercenaries by then, and was raising money and getting all kind of stuff ready for the war. He wanted steam engines so, like the man said, it was steam engine time—I got working on factories, railroads, steamships, all the rest. He already had some of his people crossing the border into Nature to seize bits of territory before then, but the eighteenth century, that’s when the invasion started for real. I used to stand next to him at the big rallies he liked to hold in those days, with all the soldiers standing in long lines, and he’d go into these wild rants about the glorious future we were going to see once Nature was conquered. The soldiers loved it; they’d cheer and grab their scientific instruments and lab coats and go conquer another province of Nature.”
The Triumphant Years
It was in 1859, Technology recalled, that Man first started using petroleum. “He’d just had the big spat with his dad over this Darwin dude: the worst fight they ever had, and in fact Man never spoke to the old man again. Man was still steaming about the fight for days afterwards, and then we heard that this guy named Edwin Drake over in Pennsylvania could get you something that was an even bigger rush than coal. Of course Man had to have some, and I said to myself, hey, I’ll give it a try—and that was all she wrote, baby. Oh, we kept using coal, and a fair bit of it, but there’s nothing like petroleum.
“What’s more, Man figured out that that’s what he needed to finish his conquest of Nature. His mercs had a good chunk of Nature by then, but not all of it, not even half, and Man was having trouble holding some of the territory he’d taken—there were guerrillas behind his lines, that sort of thing. He’d pace around at headquarters, snapping at his staff, trying to figure out how to get the edge he needed to beat Nature once and for all. ‘I’ve gotta have it all, Tech,’ he’d say sometimes, when we were flopped on the couch in his private quarters with a couple of needles and a barrel of petroleum, getting really buzzed. ‘I’ve conquered distance, the land, the surface of the sea—it’s not enough. I want it all.’ And you know, he got pretty close.”
Petroleum was the key, Clio explained. “It wasn’t just that Man used petroleum, all his soldiers and his support staff were using it too, and over the short term it’s an incredibly powerful drug; it gives users a rush of energy that has to be seen to be believed. Whole provinces of Nature that resisted every attack in the first part of the war were overrun once Man started shipping petroleum to his forces. By the 1950s, as a result, the conquest of Nature was all but complete. Nature still had a few divisions holed up in isolated corners where they couldn’t be gotten at by Man’s forces, and partisan units were all over the conquered zone, but those were minor irritations at that point. It was easy enough for Man and his followers to convince themselves that in a little while the last holdouts would be defeated and Nature would be conquered once and for all.
“That’s when reality intervened, though, because all those years of abusing coal, petroleum, and other substances started to catch up with Man. He was in bad shape, and didn’t know it—and then he started having problems feeding his addiction.”
On and Off the Wagon
“I forget exactly how it happened,” Technology recounted. “It was some kind of disagreement with his suppliers—he was getting a lot of his stuff from some Arab guys at that point, and he got into a fight with them over something, and they said, ‘Screw you, man, if you’re going to be like that we’re just not going to do business with you any more.’ So he tried to get the stuff from somebody else, and it turned out the guy from Pennsylvania was out of the business, and the connections he had in Texas and California couldn’t get enough. The Arab guys had a pretty fair corner on the market. So Man went into withdrawal, big time. We got him to the hospital, and the doctor took one look at him and said, ‘You gotta get into rehab, now.’ So me and some of his other friends talked him into it.”
“The records of his stays in rehab are heartbreaking,” Clio said, pulling down a tell-all biography from her shelf. “He’d start getting the drug out of his system, convince himself that he was fine, check himself out, and start using again almost immediately. Then, after a little while, he’d have problems getting a fix, end up in withdrawal, and find his way back into rehab. Meanwhile the war against Nature was going badly as the other side learned how to fight back effectively. There were rumors of ceasefire negotiations, even a peace treaty between him and Nature.”
“I went to see him in rehab one day,” said Technology. “He looked awful. He looked old—like his old man Everyman. He was depressed, too, talking all the time about this malaise thing. The thing is, I think if he’d stuck with it then he could have gotten off the stuff and straightened his life out. I really think he could have done it, and I tried to help. I brought him some solar panels, earth-sheltered housing, neat stuff like that, to try to get him interested in something besides the war on Nature and his petroleum habit. That seemed to cheer him up, and I think all his friends had high hopes for a while.
“Then the next thing I heard, he was out of rehab. He just couldn’t hack it any longer. I went to his place, and there he was, laughing and slapping everybody’s back and full of big ideas and bigger plans, just like before. That’s what it looked like at first, but the magic was gone. He tried to do a comeback career, but he just couldn’t get it back together, and things went downhill from there.”
The Final Years
The last years of Man’s career as representation of the human race were troubled. “The war against Nature wasn’t going well by then,” Clio explained. “Man’s forces were holding onto the most important provinces and cities, but insurgencies were springing up all over—drug-resistant microbes here, herbicide-tolerant weeds there. Morale was faltering, and a growing fraction of Man’s forces in the struggle against Nature no longer believed in what they were doing. They were in it for the money, nothing more, and the money was running out. Between the costs of the war, the costs of Man’s lavish lifestyle, and the rising burden of his substance abuse problem, Man was in deep financial trouble; there’s reason to believe that he may have been engaged in outright fraud to pay his bills during the last few years of his life.”
Meanwhile, Man was becoming increasingly isolated. “He’d turned his back on most of his friends,” said the anonymous housekeeper quoted earlier. “Art, Literature, Philosophy—he stopped talking to any of them, because they kept telling him to get off the stuff and straighten out his life. I remember the last time Science came to visit—she wanted to talk to Man about the state of the atmosphere, and Man literally threw her out of the house and slammed the door in her face. I was working downstairs in the laundry, where you usually can’t hear much, but I could hear Man screaming, ‘I own the atmosphere! I own the planet! I own the solar system! I own the goddam stars! They’re mine, mine, mine—how dare you tell me what to do with my property?’ He went on like that for a while, then collapsed right there in the entry. A couple of us went up, carried him into his bedroom, and got him cleaned up and put to bed. We had to do that pretty often, the last year or so.”
His longtime friend Technology was apparently the last person to see Man alive. “I went over to his place Monday afternoon,” Technology recalled. “I went there pretty often, and we’d do some stuff and hang out, and I’d start rapping about all kinds of crazy stuff, omniscient supercomputers, immortal robot bodies, stuff like that. I told him, ‘Look, Man, if you want to get into stuff like omniscience and immortality, go talk to Religion. That’s her bag, not mine.’ But he didn’t want to do that; he had some kind of falling out with her a while back, you know, and he wanted to hear it from me, so I talked it up. It got him to mellow out and unwind, and that’s what mattered to me.
“Monday, though, we get to talking, and it turns out that the petroleum he had was from this really dirty underground source in North Dakota. I said to him, ‘Man, what the frack were you thinking?’ He just looked at me and said, ‘I’ve gotta have the stuff, Tech. I’ve gotta have the stuff.’ Then he started blubbering, and I reached out to, like, pat his shoulder—and he just blew up at me. He started yelling about how it was my fault he was hooked on petroleum, my fault the war against Nature wasn’t going well, my fault this and that and blah blah blah. Then he got up and stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind him. I should have gone after him, I know I should have, but instead I just shook my head and left. Maybe if I’d gone and tried to talk him down, he wouldn’t have done it.”
“Everything was quiet,” the housekeeper said. “Too quiet. Usually we’d hear Man walking around, or he’d put some music on or something, but Monday night, the place might as well have been empty. Around ten o’ clock, we were really starting to wonder if something was wrong, and two of us from the housekeeping staff decided that we really had to go check on Man and make sure he was all right. We found him in the bathroom, lying on the floor. It was horrible—the room stank of crude oil, and there was the needle and all his other gear scattered around him on the floor. We tried to find a pulse, but he was already cold and stiff; I went and called for an ambulance anyway, and—well, you know the rest.”
The Troubled Aftermath
Man’s death leaves a great many questions unanswered. “By the time Everyman died,” Clio explained, “everyone knew who his heir would be. Man had already taken over his father’s role as humanity’s idealized self-image. That hasn’t happened this time, as you know. Man didn’t leave a will, and his estate is a mess—it may be years before the lawyers and the accountants finish going through his affairs and figure out whether there’s going to be anything at all for potential heirs to claim. Meanwhile there are at least half a dozen contenders for the role of abstract representation of the human race, and none of them is a clear favorite. It may be a long time before all the consequences are sorted out.”
Meanwhile, one of the most important voices in the debate has already registered an opinion. Following her invariable habit, Gaia refused to grant any personal interviews, but a written statement to the media was delivered by a spokesrabbit on Tuesday evening. “Please accept My sympathy for the tragic demise of Man, the would-be conqueror of Nature,” it read. “I hope it will not be out of place, though, to suggest that whomever My human children select as their new self-image might consider being a little less self-centered—not to mention a little less self-destructive.”
Fragment of Last Man image by Vincent James Napoli via wikimedia