It’s early May of the year 4847, and Willek Muriday, a chief scientist and regional director of a far-reaching biological survey, has just submitted a report on the Cagoan District, the ruins of an ancient urban center. These ruins, southwest of Lake Mishkin, were long thought to be lifeless, but year-round tropical temperatures and high levels of background radiation have led to the rapid evolution of a number of new species. “The district of Cago is alive and thriving!” Muriday writes.
This is the premise of Beyond the Sixth Extinction, a creepily beautiful new pop-up book by Chicago paper artist Shawn Sheehy. The large-format book is ostensibly for older tweens and younger teenagers, and lavish bogeymen literally leap from its pages: Its bestiary includes a mobile, nearly life-size representation of the rex roach, a species evolved from the common cockroach; a massive snapping turtle called the Cagoan dragon; and a flightless pigeon large and fierce enough to eat small mammals. Then there’s the mudmop, a descendant of the catfish. Inconsistencies in counts of the mudmop’s mouth tentacles, Muriday soberly reports, were not clarified “until biologists realized that some of the ‘tentacles’ were not what they appeared to be.” The extra tentacles turned out to be parasitic leeches. Gross!
Though Beyond the Sixth Extinction can be enjoyed solely for its dystopian yuks, its elegant paper sculptures tell a deeper story. The book doesn’t spend much time blaming humans for the world it imagines, or spell out exactly what has befallen Homo sapiens during the nearly three millennia between 2019 and 4847. But it does hint at a world in which the human footprint has been radically reduced. Chicago transformed into the diminished district of Cago, and life to some extent has moved on without us.