Thoughts on the Dying Earth genre

Mark Charan Newton was born in 1981, and has worked as an editor for imprints covering film and media tie-in fiction, and later SF and Fantasy. His first novel is called Nights of Villjamur, published by Pan Macmillan (Tor UK) and in June 2010 from Random House (Bantam Spectra).

You can’t move in Hollywood for people clutching screenplays about the apocalypse. If you’re in a café out there there’s probably someone writing one next to you right now. These days there’s some kind of cinematographer’s fetish for destroying landmark buildings and tearing up natural monuments. So maybe because of this rise in the popularity of post-apocalyptic media, or because a younger genre audience might have little knowledge of the fictions of yesteryear, I wanted to use my first posting on Jeff’s blog to write a little more about the Dying Earth genre. Because it’s pretty cool.

There are plenty of stories about the Earth being gutted, but the Dying Earth is something quite different, and it deserves more attention. Although I’m not concerned with the business of genre taxonomy here, and nor do I want to pursue the aesthetics of an academic essay, there are a few things worth noting that sets the Dying Earth genre apart, and a few key texts to explore. So here are some initial observations for the uninitiated, and some Memory Lane fodder for the rest of you.

The setting for Dying Earth novels is consciously towards the end of time, not merely after any major event. In fact there’s a good chance several such events might have happened – we could be so far into the future we can’t possibly tell. The world as we know it is unrecognizable. As a result, there is perhaps a melancholy associated with the genre – a conscious reflection at how great things once were. There seems to be a sense of fatality that seems bound in writing about the far future. Dying Earth fictions are inherently <em>fantastical</em>. Call it science fantasy if you must, the genre certainly feels like more of a fantasy than it does science fiction. There’s a mix of technology in there, too – the fantasy isn’t merely limited to magic, and the magic is sometimes intended to have some kind of justification, often through a spurious science. Dying Earth settings are very much secondary worlds, and by that I mean there is less of a reliance on current realities for the infrastructure of the book. Gene Wolfe alludes to South America in his Book of the New Sun sequence (which I’ll mention later), but we know that his Urth is a different place entirely.

So, some key books.

People point towards H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as one of the origin novels, since it visits a deeply futuristic setting in which the world reverts to a more primitive form. Later, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories, set on Earth’s last continent, began crystallising this genre. Published in the 1930s, they were some of the first works to explore the cycles of cultures moving forward into a deeply unrecognizable fantasy future. And that’s part of the essence, surely, that we can no longer recognise what has happened to the world, or what we’ve done to it.

But we most likely didn’t start recognizing the Dying Earth as a genre until a certain Jack Vance (influenced by Smith) wrote his Tales of the Dying Earth. Finally we had a name for this thing. Some of these earliest stories were first published in the 1950s, and upon first reading are a surreal and heady collection of images. Cugel’s Saga is often seen as the most popular of the later works, first published in 1983, but Vance’s wit and dynamic style proved intoxicating, and the stories became iconic. (For more detail, check out The Wertzone’s review.)

The power of Vance is very much apparent. Recently there was an anthology released called Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, which was a tribute to Vance’s novels. It gave a boost to the old master’s works, and plenty of Big Named Writers wanted to play in Vance’s toy box.

Now onto a favorite of mine. Gene Wolfe (influenced by Vance) wrote what is commonly thought to be one of the high points of Twentieth Century science fiction and fantasy – fuck that, of any literature. His original quartet was called The Book of the New Sun, and was laced with mythical and biblical imagery, and more symbols than you can shake at Aleister Crowley. The tales of Severian the Torturer are established classics, and cannot be done any justice in a pithy paragraph. They are deeply complex books, written in a beautiful style, and constantly (and surprisingly) sprouts new layers and facets upon re-reading. These books aren’t for everyone – and nor are they quick reads. This is literary fine cuisine, and should be savoured. Larry’s in-depth collection of postings on the series is one of the better studies of the books online.

Another of my favorites is M John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence. These stories are almost anti-fantasies. The city of Viriconium changes consciously (even its name to Uriconium), deliberately avoiding the ability to be mapped – challenging the preconceptions of fantasy readers. The world possesses the technological litter from thousands of cultures previously. It is a bleak vision, but spellbindingly surreal and with a beautiful and complex prose, and there’s something very British underneath it all, which sets it apart. This is not a literature of comfort, and it requires more than a couple of readings to discover the treats within. These stories have been divisive amongst the SFF community, people either love them or loathe them. See the Westeros forum for an example.

There are many other books and series that will fall under this category. Feel free to add more into the comments section – I merely wanted to outline a few of the major works. And maybe in writing this, a few readers might go and order some of these wonderful books. Specifying what it is about this setting that appeals to me as a writer proves rather difficult. Perhaps it’s the melancholy fatalism: these worlds all possess a vastly different psychogeography from other fantasies. Perhaps it’s the fact that the setting opens up more options – that the literature has more freedoms, more potential for meaning than a fantasy that looks backwards. In other words, it’s easier to do the clever shit and the crazy shit together.

Please note that a much earlier version of this piece was written for Speculative Horizons.

17 comments on “Thoughts on the Dying Earth genre

  1. Steven Klotz says:

    Gene Wolf was my first introduction to this concept. I look forward to catching up on some of the others.

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  3. sara says:

    wow. super interesting and educational! This was a complete introduction to the genre for me :) thanks! I am definitely going to check out Shadow & Claw – I’m a sucker for mythical and biblical imagery.

  4. Joe says:

    I was thinking about what you said about this sub genre generally being a melancholy one by its very nature and two examples sprang to mind that actually had upbeat endings. One isn’t a novel, its Straczynski’s Babylon 5 where we see a segment of a story set millennia in the future as a super-evolved human finishes downloading the last information from systems on an Earth about to be consumed by the sun, but its to take to New Earth, a new beginning “this is how the world end, swallowed by fire but not by darkness” before addressing his ancestors “you will live on, we’ve built the world we think you would have wished for us”. Its an ending certainly but like many endings also a beginning.

    The other is a short story by Arthur C Clarke (annoyingly can’t recall the title, read it a couple of decades ago) where alien explorers rush to try and save what they can of human civilisation before the end, surprised that intelligent life has evolved in the time since they last visited Earth. They find human cities and landmarks but no people and assume perhaps they have hidden themselves away deep below ground to wait for the end, until discovering signals being sent from cameras into space – humanity has built a fleet of arks and taken to the stars to continue, while the cameras send on to them the last moments of the Earth.

  5. Mark C Newton says:

    Steven – me too! Don’t forget to keep going back to him – you’ll find even more in the same place.

    Sara – glad you found it useful, and I really hope you enjoy Shadow & Claw!

    Joe – thanks for flagging those up – it makes sense that there would be at least some positive examples, and I didn’t know about those ones.

    I think, generally, there are more melancholic stories, simply because of the subject matter. Which is not to say they’re depressing, however, more a poetic melancholy. I’d be keen to hear about more of the positive stories though.

  6. Laurie says:

    Wow, I never imagined that the thing I like best about the Viriconium series (the shifting nature of the world from story to story) would be the very thing it was reviled for in some circles.

    The anime Casshern Sins (a revamp of a early 70’s series) would fall into this genre I suppose. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casshern_Sins)

  7. I’d like to add that as well as being fine examples of the Dying Earth, Vance’s Cugel stories are the funniest works of Fantasy fiction I’ve ever read.

    As for origin stories, you make a good point about The Time Machine – I’d never even considered it in this context before! Many people put Hodgson’s The Night Land forward as the first unambiguous example of a Dying Earth novel but the fact that it’s so badly written (in stylistic terms rather than ideas) as to be almost unreadable means that it gets passed over a lot. I’ve still yet to get past the first few pages myself!

    The sense of melancholy that you mention is one of my favourite things about the genre. There’s a kind of sunset beauty to it all. As Clark Ashton Smith wrote, “To my imagination, nothing seems half so portentous as the going-out of a sun”. The characters in a Dying Earth story live with the knowledge of certain doom, yet live they must because what else can they do? There’s nothing more romantic than a last stand. I think there’s a broad theme of mortality there that runs quite deeply – the death of all as macrocosm for the death of one or the death of anything. There’s something very rock & roll about it too – lives lived on the brink, a party in the early hours of the morning when the place is a wreck and the sun’s about to come up (or go out in this case). Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time is a good example in the genre of fin de siècle decadence writ big – the final wild, strange days of an entire world, everyone rushing to get the drinks in before last orders.

  8. Patton McGinley says:

    My entrants to the sub-genre’s roll-call have to be Elizabeth Hand’s first three novels: Winterlong, Aestival Tide and Icarus Descending. Though they have minor drawbacks (especially the last two) the sheer exuberance of Winterlong is captivating. And speaking of “melancholy fatalism,” these books have it in spades. The entire “end of time” element may not specifically fit for the “un-trilogy,” but by the end of Icarus Descending it is quite obvious that it’s the “end” of the current iteration of the Earth.

  9. I think the Buried Earth genre is under blown and under written.

  10. Hi Laurie – yeah, that book certainly does divide people. Glad you’re a fan though, and thanks for the other link – I’ll check it out.

    Hey Alex! You know, I still need to read Dancers at the End of Time – it’s been on my list for a long time. I like the comparison to a sunset beauty – there’s something dignified about that melancholy.

    Hi Patton – thanks for those recommendations. I’ll certainly add them to my next Amazon binge.

  11. f. says:

    I’m not sure what it is I love about this genre, being it usually a mix of elegy with picaresque (with everything else in the case of Wolfe’s New Sun) and as such a strange mix between melancholy and joy, or some kind of melancholy and joy, but I must celebrate too the inclusion of The Time Machine. Clever point.
    And I second as well the mention of The Dancers at the End of Time.
    Though I’m not sure Joe was referring to those, his comment reminded me of other Clarke works: “Againts the Fall of Night” and its expansion into novel, The City and the Stars.
    Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse and Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection (I think I read this one not long after The Book of the New Sun and it was impossible not to see some similarities) are also the kind of stories I’d include.
    Finally, I can’t remember who or where but somebody included J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands in a dying earth bibliography. It may not be your classic dying earth story or an orthodox one, but it is something worth musing on.

  12. Georges Dodds says:

    One of the best dying earth stories I’ve come across is J.H. Rosny’s 1910 “La Mort de la Terre’ (or “The Death of the Earth) which was available in English translation from Ayer Publ. and appears in Preview format on Google books (search for The Xipehuz and The death of the earth). It has ferromagnetic life forms reprocessing much of the grand structures built by man, and man dying out in a world where the sun is fading. Another excellent dying Earth novel, as mentioned by ‘Alex’ would be William Hope Hodgson’s “The Night Land.” I must say that the writing style (pseudo-Elizabethan) never really bothered me, but that was in the days that I was reading “The Fairie Queene” and “The Worm Ouroboros.”

  13. Mark C Newton says:

    Hi f. I’ve read Hothouse – but didn’t include it in the major list. For some reason, I never got on with the prose. And I do enjoy Ballard’s novels so I’ll have to find out more about the Vermillion Sands collection.

    Hi Georges – The Night Land – I believe Gollancz to a Masterwork edition of that in the UK. (And I’m off to google Death of the Earth now!)

    It would be good to have a complete compendium of Dying Earth books, and a brief description of each text. Maybe I should start one based on some of these very useful comments.

  14. Compendium sounds like a good idea, especially one that gives a sense of a timeline – stretching back from the likes of The Night Land up to Villjamur in the present day.

    Re. the Masterwork edition – it includes a great essay by China Mieville on Hodgson which I would consider essential reading if you’re interested in the author. Nobody has yet adequately explained his mysterious loathing of pigs however (no, I’m not making that up).

  15. jeff h says:

    Matthew Hughes’ Archonate novels and stories are often compared to Vance’s work. They’re great reads.

  16. dnix says:

    Gene Wolfe is over rated. His works always start strong, but then become repetitive with characters who start to sound or feel alike. I think reviewers always fall for his command of the language and miss the lack of good story movement.

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