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 canâ€™t move in Hollywood for people clutching screenplays about the apocalypse. If youâ€™re in a cafÃ© out there thereâ€™s probably someone writing one next to you right now. These days thereâ€™s some kind of cinematographerâ€™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 Iâ€™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 thereâ€™s a good chance several such events might have happened â€“ we could be so far into the future we canâ€™t possibly tell. The world as we know it is unrecognizable. As a result, there is perhaps a melancholy associated with the genre â€“ 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. Thereâ€™s a mix of technology in there, too â€“ the fantasy isnâ€™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 Iâ€™ll mention later), but we know that his Urth is a different place entirely.
So, some key books.
People point towards H.G. Wellsâ€™ 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 Smithâ€™s Zothique stories, set on Earthâ€™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 didnâ€™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. Cugelâ€™s Saga is often seen as the most popular of the later works, first published in 1983, but Vanceâ€™s wit and dynamic style proved intoxicating, and the stories became iconic. (For more detail, check out The Wertzoneâ€™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 Vanceâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ and nor are they quick reads. This is literary fine cuisine, and should be savoured.Â Larryâ€™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 Harrisonâ€™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 â€“ 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 thereâ€™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 â€“ 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 itâ€™s the melancholy fatalism: these worlds all possess a vastly different psychogeography from other fantasies. Perhaps itâ€™s the fact that the setting opens up more options â€“ 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.