The Dying Earth genre

Ever since first reading Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories many years ago, I’ve been interested in the Dying Earth genre. It includes stories of an earth millions or billions of years in the future, one where the planet is running down, often with the sun also near the end of its life. The setting is bleak and affects the attitudes of the characters and societies in the stories (if they understand enough about their setting, which they often don’t).

Being the far future, the genre tends to blur the lines between fantasy and science fiction, with it always plausible that any seeming magic is actually just very advanced science, with Clarke’s third law in the background.

The exact boundaries of this genre are an interesting question. The Wikipedia article on it lists H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as an early example. It also lists Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night, along with its rewrite, The City and the Stars, as another. These are clearly on the science fiction side of the genre. (Although considering time machines and some of the technology in Clarke’s stories science rather than magic is a matter of interpretation.)

But it was Clark Ashton Smith and his Zothique setting that really defined the genre as it’s commonly understood. Smith described Zothique as the last inhabitable continent on a far future Earth, where technology has regressed to the level of classical or medieval times. I suspect Smith did this because in many ways a sense of decay fits with the actual historical medieval mindset, at least in Europe in the early middle ages. (The people in the European middle ages didn’t know they were in the middle ages, with a renaissance and scientific age to come, so it seemed to them that the world was in irreversible decline.)

In the late 1920s and early 30s, Smith wrote a large number of stories, many of which were set in Zothique. I’ve read a few of them, and they’re unrelentingly dark, often reading like fevered nightmares, although it’s hard to fault them for their sheer imagination. (Many of them can be found online.)

Smith, who is often forgotten today, was one of the “big three” of Weird Tales, a magazine that was once the center of the fantasy genre during the pulp era. The other members of the big three were Robert E. Howard of Conan the Barbarian fame, and H.P. Lovecraft.

Smith’s influence on Vance is pretty clear. Although Vance’s stories aren’t quite as dark, and generally have a sense of irony and gallows humor running through them that seem absent in the Zothique tales. Vance also has other influences, such as Jeffrey Farnol, which gives a lot of his writing its unique style.

Vance’s stories start off firmly in the fantasy medieval type setting with magicians and spells, similar to Smith’s. But in the last couple of stories of the original collection, he mixes in science fictional elements, such as the remains of a high tech city, and an ancient museum with both magic and technological knowledge, the legacy of thousands of past civilizations. Although in subsequent books and stories, he largely retreats back to the fantasy form.

Another series often cited as a pillar of the genre is Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, along with its sequel, The Urth of the New Sun, both of which I just recently read. Like the others, the setting is the far future with the sun nearing the end of its life and the world growing colder.

It’s tempting to object that by the 1980s, when Wolfe published this series, we knew enough about the evolution of the sun to say this isn’t how it would happen. But Wolfe makes clear that at one point humanity had the ability to shape things on a vast scale. For example, the moon in this story is green, having been terraformed. So there’s no guarantee that the evolution of the sun hasn’t been altered in the past by humanity, even if it isn’t able to anymore.

As in the other stories, the setting starts off seeming pretty medieval, but from the start there are hints all is not as it seems. For example, it seems clear the towers the viewpoint character grows up in are ancient grounded spaceships. And as the story progresses, we see increasingly more advanced technology, and information about a wider universe.

Like the rest of the genre, things are grim. The main character, Severian, is a member of the torturer’s guild, but is disgraced and eventually a fugitive due to a serious character flaw, showing mercy. As a result, he ends up roaming the world. Somewhat ironically he eventually becomes the leader of that world. (This isn’t a spoiler. Severian as the first person narrator reveals it pretty early.) By the time we get to the end of the series, Severian’ story has ranged from early Incan history to the ends of the universe.

On balance I enjoyed Wolfe’s series, but often found the writing frustrating. The pacing was slow. Wolfe has a tendency to describe settings in excessive detail. On the other hand his description of action is often so sparse it’s easy to get confused as to what happened. (At least for me.) So while I think this series deserves the critical accolades it receives, I can see why it’s never been tremendously popular.

Difficult writing seems to be a tradition in this genre. Another early example, which I haven’t attempted to read, is William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. The description of it sounds haunting, but just sampling the opening pages was enough to dissuade me. Wolfe’s writing isn’t anywhere near as difficult as Hodgson’s, but it’s definitely more effort than Vance’s or Smith’s.

Another more recent example, which isn’t usually listed as being in the genre, but I think many of its themes fit, is N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth series. The far future earth in this series isn’t so much dying, but something is definitely wrong. Every few centuries there are massive geological upheavals which kill most of the population, resulting in a long line of fallen civilizations. Highly recommended.

There’s always new material coming out in this genre. I recently started to read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls. I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of Tchaikovsky’s science fiction. But a few chapters into Cage of Souls, I realized I needed a break from the bleakness of the genre. Although I do plan to eventually get back to it.

Have you read anything in the genre? If so, what do you think of it? Any other examples to recommend?

10 thoughts on “The Dying Earth genre

  1. “Have you read anything in the genre? ” No. I’m more of a historical fiction fan. Just started watching “OUTLANDER” (and will try a book) on Starz. Loving it. Romantic Adventure, which defines WHO I AM.
    Futurists, so far, bore me. If we can’t figure out who and why we are here now? and so on and so forth? What’s the point? Distraction? Okay. I’m not interested.
    In OUTLANDER, the female British, protagonist (mid-20th Century) time-travels back to mid-18th Century Ireland.
    Fascinating! Well written and acted. (imo)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey, to each their own. I do occasionally get into historical fiction, but it depends on how interested I am in the particular historical time and place being portrayed. I’ve heard good things about Outlander, but have never gotten into it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a lot of resonance between them, but the Dying Earth one is more of an entropic exhaustion scenario. In some ways, it’s actually optimistic, since it assumes humanity in some form or another will still be around that long.

      But there are also overlaps. For example, Mad Max Fury Road is post apocalyptic, but it also seems clear in that movie that the earth is dying. If the story had taken place 500 million years from now, with the sun’s increasingly luminosity drying out the planet, not much would need to be changed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I would say I am a fan of the genre. I have read Wolfe’s books more than once, there are things that you notice only the second time around, even in his shorter work like the fifth head of cerberus. Probably need to revisit Vance at some point (Did you know that the magic system in D&D was heavily influenced by Vance’s Dying Earth?). I was not aware of Smith, thanks for pointing him out!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The editions of the Book of the New Sun I read had introductions by Ada Palmer. I initially blew past these, but after reading Shadow of the Torturer, I realized I needed the framing she provided. She relayed the same thing, that a lot of the depth only comes out with multiple readings. It’s hard for me to imagine going through all that again, but maybe at some point down the road. Her intro did prime me to keep an eye out for hints and clues about the setting.

      I did know about D&D’s magic system being inspired by Vance’s, although Vance himself wasn’t really consistent with it. (Understandable given the books were written over several decades.)

      Have you ever read Vance’s Lynosse series? It’s not Dying Earth, taking place in the early middle ages on a lost island, but at the fantasy level it has a similar feel.


      1. I have read Lyonesse series, many years ago. I remember the beginning being really impressive, then weakening somewhat toward the end of the series. Or maybe I am confusing him with some other writer, like Philip Jose Farmer?


        1. Can’t say on Farmer, but it did seem like the war at the end of the third Lyonesse book was rushed. It felt like Vance realized he had to do something there since he had spent the whole series building up to it, but wasn’t really interested in that part. So the whole thing happens in fast forward in mostly summary narrative. I do think if he’d planned a little more he could have worked it better into the overall story.


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