‘He who has trod the shadows of Zothique
And looked upon the coal-red sun oblique,
Henceforth returns to no anterior land,
But haunts a later coast
Where cities crumble in the black sea-sand
And dead gods drink the brine.’
I have written before about my love for the horror, science fiction, and sword and sorcery genres. But my top fiction loyalty, which contains elements from all of the above, is a more niche subgenre of both pulp and literature known as the Dying Earth subgenre.
The specific origins of this subgenre are debatable. End of humanity stories are as old as mythology itself. End of the universe stories also date back quite a bit. But stories specifically about the end of Earth (and/or the end of the Sun which presupposes the end of Earth) as an event of finality for the entire world but not the greater universe are a more recent fictional innovation. It is an apocalypse, yes, but one of a specific place. William Hope Hodgeson’s House on the Borderland and The Night Land are probably the first instances of this that everyone can agree fits the model to a tee. Though I would say most of the imagery we have of these settings come from Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique setting and Jack Vance’s collected works in his Dying Earth setting, which is where the name originates.
What is this dying earth and why is it so evocative? It may be more of a mood than a specific definition.
Imagine you awake after some kind of artificially imposed slumber from deep within a sealed tomb. You were preserved while the solar system drank in the aeons. You now find yourself in a world that is far past its prime. A fading and bloated reddish sun lingers in the sky, flickering like a lamp that at any moment could go out. The horizons of Earth below it are strewn with crumbling ruins and titanic monuments from empires long forgotten which had yet to exist when you last were among the realm of the living. Perhaps vague continental outlines remain that have some degree of familiarity-if you are lucky. But for the most part old Earth is now even more ancient and its cultural trappings are now utterly alien to you.
As you walk through a landscape stalked by alien creatures-some partially recognizable as evolutionary or genetically modified descendants of familiar beasts- some not (perhaps imported from the stars in a now forgotten era of human off-world expansion or alien invasion?) you realize you are in a world where the fragments of future-pasts exist as highly advanced technology which has now degenerated into sorcery and alchemy. Perhaps a few well connected people remember them as sciences and keep this knowledge under lock and key, or perhaps no one does and they are now magic in everyone’s mind no matter how learned. You know only that the ghosts whose tombs you rob to survive on the road are of people who were millennia away from being born when you last walked this planet.
Should you survive in this lower-light world of perils where the stars can often been seen in the daylight and the temperatures are on average lower to what you remember, you may be so…lucky…to come across something more than a ramshackle farming village or merchant town but rather a whole city. The city, no doubt, will have seen better days in its past. Its crumbling monuments are now used as places for washer-maids to affix clotheslines. There is no dearth of unused space, however, so rather than teeming hordes one finds a place where even the poor can live in a kind of graveyard opulence. Here, where the security towards beasts is greater, the insecurity towards humanity increases. The stately and floral language that is the final overripe fruit of humanity often conceals duplicitous and nefarious intent. Should you successfully navigate this minefield of strange and often divergent social norms, you may just find yourself recognized as a fascinating relic from a golden era and elevated into the inner circle of some decadent aristocrat or scholar…or perhaps as the plaything and slave of a mad wizard-scientist.
Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique was focused on a Gothic yet romantic conception of bloated exhaustion itself. The last continent on a far future Earth possessing an immense beauty that occasionally shines through its decadent terror. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, which I confess is my favorite of all fiction collections anywhere, takes this inspiration and really cranks up the comedic and pompous elements of it, with primary characters as bombastic and tragicomic as the faded temples and gods that served as set pieces in Smith’s works. Vance takes great pleasure in presenting a kind of Epicurean end times, where laconic detachment and petty foibles reign over humanity’s twilight epoch. Even the cannibalistic monsters engage in witty repartee with their intended victims. The sun could go out at any minute, why not engage more heavily in the arts, petty squabble, and gourmandism? Reflecting this dynamic perfectly, the Dying Earth tabletop roleplaying game has endless amounts of pettifoggery-based social skills which players can not only employ against NPCs but also each other. Where Smith saw the bloated corpse-worms crawling over a stiffening Earth, Vance saw the immense amusement of the corpse-worms dressed like they were going to the Venetian masquerade ball to play games of wit and compete over social status.
Currently, I am reading through Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun for the third time. It is the most literary of the Dying Earth subgenre entries. The author’s intention was to create something that gains value the more it is re-read, and in this he succeeded admirably. Having far future technology described in the first person to you by someone who both thinks it is normal but is unaware of what it actually is is a fun puzzle to piece through as you read. When you realize that what sounds like a giant mediaeval castle (for it is used as such) is actually a long-parked spaceship whose utility is forgotten, or that archaic classically tinged terms for military units are in fact describing laser-gun armed cavalry mounted atop genetically modified monster-horses, it creates a fun dynamic between author and reader. The archaic nature of terminology from the South America-based protagonist stomping ground becomes even more interesting when you meet the Ascians, a North American people (who I would unseriously posit are descended from Zoomers despite the books publication in the early 80s) who can only speak in ultra-modernist political jargon-slogans. While Wolfe is always a pleasure to read and I recommend this work, I do have to add the caveat that I prefer Smith and Vance in this subgenre overall as the best part of the Dying Earth subgenre (to me) is the inevitability of the Sun/Earth extinction and the effects this knowledge has on the cultures subject to it. In Book of the New Sun (and also in Philip Jose Farmer’s Dark is the Sun) there is not just hope in revival, but real paths to take towards making it a reality. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but it is hardly peak Dying Earth. The emphasis, of course, is on the Dying.
If you would like to get a strong dose of the overall atmosphere of this wonderful subgenre in under eight minutes, there is a stunning spoken version of a prose poem from Clark Ashton Smith himself that I believe does the job magnificently. Additionally, if you would like the overall Vancean attitude that I take from such heavy questions coupled with more AI generated art (albeit this time not my own) why not take in the generated visuals of a classic song?