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So You Want to Read Dying Earth Fiction: Here’s Where to Start

 

Dying Earth fiction is set in a distant future in which the Earth — or maybe the universe itself — is dying. Humanity’s golden age was long ago, and cynicism and greed rule the day. Typically magic and technology have become indistinguishable, and sorcerers and thieves plot and scheme under the dimming light of a red sun.

Here are three suggestions If you’re interested in trying this science-fantasy subgenre for yourself.

  • The cover of the book Tales of the Dying Earth

    Tales of the Dying Earth

    While traces of what would become Dying Earth fiction can be found in earlier works, the genre proper is the brainchild of the late Jack Vance (d. 2013). Across four books — The Dying EarthThe Eyes of the OverworldCugel’s Saga, and Rhialto the Magnificent — detailed a future so distant from our own that it might as well be the mythic past. As a swollen red sun grows ever closer to annihilating the Earth, decadent magicians compete for the technology of an ancient age — a science now known as magic.

    Many authors prior to Vance had written apocalyptic literature — Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man was probably the first — but what really made the Dying Earth stories stand out was Vance’s baroque prose style, and droll humor. Vance’s tales seemed at times to have more in common with 18th century picaresques than they did with contemporary science-fiction novels.

     
  • The cover of the book The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies

    The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies

    Vance did have his influences, though, and it is very likely that one of them was Clark Ashton Smith. Smith, a contemporary of H. P. Lovecraft, had a similarly verbose and sometimes flowery prose style, and mixed elements of science-fiction and fantasy in many of his stories.

    Smith’s Zothique Cycle of stories at least shared some creative DNA with the Dying Earth tales. Set in a scarcely recognizable far future, the Zothique Cycle features magicians and adventurers exploring an Earth in which technology has been subsumed by savagery and superstition.

     
  • The cover of the book Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun)

    Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun)

    Vance’s Dying Earth books have proven to be enormously influential, so it’s extremely hard to point to one author or work as being the rightful inheritor of their legacy. As such, maybe it is better to describe Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun as an ideal next read for fans of Vance’s work.

    Like Vance’s original stories, Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun — The Shadow of the TorturerThe Claw of the ConciliatorThe Sword of the LictorThe Citadel of the Autarch — is set on a future Earth dying under the anemic rays of a red sun. The book’s protagonist, Severian, is an exiled torturer — a character who would have probably fit in well with Vance’s cast of mountebanks and wizards. That said, no matter how Vance might have influenced it, Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun is a classic in its own right.