Science Fantasy - Tales of the Dying Earth
A faded red sun fills the sky... Ancient ruins sparkle and groan in a muted landscape... Forbidden and forgotten technology lies hidden deep in underground tombs... Wizards channel magic through intense concentration and arcane utterances...
This is Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth
The namesake of the "Dying Earth" subgenre, Tales of the Dying Earth is one of the most important influences in the science fantasy genre.
This volume is actually a collection of four short "Dying Earth" books. The first, The Dying Earth, was published in 1950. The Eyes of the Overworld, the second volume, was published in 1966. The final two volumes, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvelous were first published in 1983 and 1984, respectively. Now, these four works are generally collected together in a single volume.
The earlier works are considered "fix-ups," or novels comprised of interconnected short stories, while Cugel’s Saga and Rhialto the Marvelous contain longer stories that one could consider proper novels.
The Dying Earth stories are set in the far-distant future Earth, at a point where our sun is nearly burned out, the moon is gone and magic has become a force that exists in the world. Civilization has fallen to ruin and monsters roam the land. The characters wrestle with strange powers and stumble upon bizarre technology from ages past.
Jack Vance isn’t the first author to write stories set so far in the future that the sun is burning out and our civilization is long turned to dust, but his work did name the subgenre. Earlier far future “dying earth” stories include works by Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and H.G. Wells, among others.
Notably, Dying Earth stories are different from apocalyptic stories. Apocalyptic stories deal with the threat of individual and societal survival in the face of catastrophe. Dying Earth stories, by comparison, exist so far in the future that our current history is lost to the dust of time.
In Dying Earth stories, the setting establishes the tone and style – sort of romantic, melancholy, strange, and esoteric.
The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others. - Jack Vance, Tales of the Dying Earth
Jack Vance is a master of this tone. His writing is descriptive and evocative. The characters and the plots reinforce the themes of civilization crumbling, of history being lost to time.
Vance’s prose is interesting, painting these elaborate, detailed scenes but populating them with shallow, facile characters who are far more interested in their own selfish lives than in the rich history that surrounds them.
“I categorically declare first my absolute innocence, second my lack of criminal intent, and third my effusive apologies.” - Jack Vance, Tales of the Dying Earth
Vance's Dying Earth stories were hugely influential. In terms of obvious major influences, the most immediate comparison can be made to Gene Wolfe's masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, which I hope to cover in a future blog post. Many of the ideas birthed by Vance are nurtured and brought to maturity by Wolfe. But Gene Wolfe is far from the only major author to be influenced by Jack Vance. Michael Chabon and Dan Simmons both count him as an influence as well.
For a more popular influence, we only need to look at Dungeons and Dragons. In D&D, wizards learn magic by studying ancient tomes. This is done by spending hours each day memorizing esoteric phrases and gestures. A wizard can only memorize a certain number of magical spells per day varying by their level of mastery and doing so takes intense levels of concentration. Once the wizards casts a spell, it is wiped from their memory. The wizard can only cast the spell again after resting and spending more time imprinting the details of the spell into their mind once again.
This system, first invented by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, is lifted straight from Vance’s Dying Earth stories. It’s even known as “Vancian magic” because that's how Jack Vance described wizards and their magic.
The Numenara tabletop role-playing game from Monte Cook Games, which is also the featured in the video game Torment: Tides of Numenara, is heavily influenced by the Dying Earth stories of Jack Vance. One of the notable likenesses is the ways that ancient technological artifacts are used like magic.
These are not the most sophisticated stories, but they can be a lot of fun to read if you know what to expect. They’re adventure stories if you boil them down. They’re about thieves and outcasts searching ancient ruins, stumbling upon a wizard’s lair, and trying to escape unscathed.
Vance presents a mystical, mysterious world, and you can just see the edges of our own history sometimes peeking out from underneath, making you the reader feel like you know more secrets than the characters do.
I think that’s one of the fun things about Dying Earth stories, is seeking the connections between this strange future and the one we live in now.
It's worth being aware, too, that these stories are products of their time and thus contain stereotypes that wouldn't fly today. Female characters are underdeveloped or objectified, something unfortunately common at the time. And the character development in these stories is lacking – particularly the earlier stories are primarily pulp adventure yarns that feel more contemporaneous with Edgar Rice Burroughs or E.E. Doc Smith.
Tales of the Dying Earth is a goldmine of ideas for authors, GMs, players, and other creatives who like science fantasy.
Cugel the antihero is a model for an interesting main character or player character in a TTRPG. He thinks highly of himself but he is truly a scoundrel, selfish, short-sighted and greedy. It is only by his luck and wits that he gets out of situations. A sort of proto han-solo in a fantasy setting, Cugel stumbles from one adventure to another, finding himself deeper in trouble each time.
Unique cultures – Vance fills the Dying Earth stories with a seemingly endless variety of cultures. Each place seems to have its own strange religion, legal system, economy, and social and cultural practices. Any one of these could be the setting of a story or book; Vance crams them all together to make something truly strange. As a worldbuilder or game master, there are literally dozens of setting ideas here for the borrowing.
Magic as strange and powerful – Too often in fantasy stories, we see magic painted in one of two ways – either magic is a system operating under detailed rules, as seen in Brandon Sanderson’s books, or magic is an unknowable, mystical theme that serves the whims of the story, as in fairy tales or Miyazaki films. Vance presents something different – a powerful force that is inexplicable but nevertheless that selfish, power-hungry men seek to exert control over. One could conceive it as a metaphor of humankind trying to exert control over nature, but setting this aside, the idea of magic as a force that is beyond control or understanding is a compelling and exciting one that could make its way into any number of stories or games.
Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth is one of the most influential collections in the dying earth subgenre, and an important book in the genre of science fantasy. If you love adventure stories, or if you are just interested in experiencing the roots of the dying earth subgenre, it’s a collection worth checking out. However, the stories are pretty simplistic and the writing suffers from some outdated stereotypes and ideas. If this is a big turn-off for you, you might not want to spend your time trying to get into this.
If you like science fantasy, consider checking out one of my books. When Stars Move & Other Stories contains a science fantasy story called "Reignition" in which the main character is brought back to life using esoteric technology to serve the cult of the god of the dead. I expanded that setting into what would become a full length novel, the as-yet-unpublished Gods of Sky and Dust.
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Finally, share your thoughts in the comments! What do you think about Jack Vance's stories? What are your favorite science fantasy books, movies, or games?