Novel * Jack Vance * The Earth, It’s Dying * 1950
Um… I’m not really sure what just happened here. First of all, The Dying Earth is less a novel than a collection of five short stories that take place in roughly the same time period featuring some of the same characters. The events of these tales occurs a few billion years in the future and everything is super weird, as one might expect. The sun is a red supergiant which is threatening to go out at any time (never mind that when the sun actually does expand near the end of its life, it will envelop the entirety of the inner solar system, thus destroying earth long before the sun goes out). The moon is gone (which would also pretty much end life on earth), the tides are gone, the mountains worn and the planet’s tectonics ceased. Life in earth’s twilight goes on, however. There’s new and strange plants and animals, although for all intents and purposes humanity and domesticated pets appear in their familiar forms. Apparently evolution skipped a species or two, which, whatever. The Dying Earth is nominally a work of science fiction, taking place, as it does, in the distant future, but we’re dealing with fantasy here.
If you weren’t convinced by the wonky, not-quite-right science that this is a work fantasy, don’t worry, because there’s magic. The first character of the first story is a straight up wizard. He’s hanging out in his wizard den, attempting to produce vat-grown people, but failing. So he loads up on spells (wizards can only have so many in their brain at a time, haven’t you ever played D&D? This is where a lot of that biz came from) like the Excellent Prismatic Spray, which frankly sounds like something Abracadaniel would try and fail to bust out to impress girls, and makes haste for some kind of overlord sorcerer who can help him out. None of that makes much sense, but whatever, just go with it.
The rest of the stories play out in a similar fashion, and they all feel pretty self-contained. There is some overlap of characters, and I will admit to being surprised at how douchy some of the main characters are. Let me tell you, Liane the Wayfarer is a real dicklord, no two ways about it. I suppose the surprise comes from when the book was written, but also in the way it is written. Everything feels very abstract. There is an esoteric atmosphere which matches the setting. After all, this is all taking place in the very twilight of existence, and things are bound to get a little wiggy around the edges. As if that weren’t enough, everyone talks in odd, stilted sentences. There are a couple of Shakespeare moments when people who are killed first announce that they are slain, go on to elucidate a few plot points, and then announce that they’re dead again. Eventually they actually die. It’s all very strange, but by the time the final story wraps up, it all feels cohesive. The quirks of diction and syntax all lend to the overall sense of otherworldliness, despite ostensibly taking place on our own planet.
Typically, when we speak of a decline and fall, we are speaking of an empire or civilization. Perhaps we think of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or my personal favorite, The Decline of the West. A good deal of modern fiction struggles with this background dread of ongoing decline, be it that of the United States, Europe, or modern civilization in general. The Dying Earth, however, puts all that shit into perspective by examining the final, unavoidable, and ultimately terminal fall of humanity. Civilizations come and go, but some day we’re going to decline and fall one final time. With that sobering thought out of the way, however, this is actually a positive thing. The Dying Earth and any number of other far-future stories make a strong assertion, which is that regardless of what the universe (or some suicidal civilization) inflicts upon humanity, we shall persevere thousands, millions, or in this case billions of years into the future. Further, there are hints and asides in this text that yes, mankind has reached the stars and hey, maybe it’s going to be okay.
Ha ha, just kidding. The sun will explode and we’re all going to die.
The Dying Earth is a highly stylized, fantastical look at what humanity will do when the end approaches. Not a religious, Apocalyptic end. Not a catastrophic, holocaust end brought on by our own folly. Not even an immense natural, catastrophic end. Rather, The Dying Earth examines the entropic endgame. Humanity is here when the lights go out for good, and when they do, people get weird. There’s magic and sorcerers, although it is heavily hinted that all they’re doing is science (not unlike Princess Bubblegum’s assertion that “all magic is science, you just don’t know what you’re doing so you call it magic, and well, it’s ridiculous”). There are creepy demonic orgies and lethargic cults. It is implied that most of who are left just kind of hang out and do whatever. The major characters that we come across, most of whom have nicknames and titles, are shown to be the only people with any real ambition left. Some of these folks are quite evil, like the aforementioned dicklord Liane the Wayfarer. He may be the living worst, but I guess at least he’s getting out there and trying to do stuff. Even if it is only to hump a freaky witch. And, uh, only because he’s unable to rape her. Like I said, he’s a dicklord, but an ambitious dicklord.
It is this ambition that is at the heart of these stories, of these characters, and as these tales would have you believe, humanity itself. There is a point toward the end of the last story that makes this pretty clear. The story is of a young, ambitious lad who goes out on a merry adventure (and his hometown is more than happy to get rid of him, since he makes them feel like the fat lazy slobs they are) to find The Curator of the Museum of Man and get all his questions answered. Eventually he gets there, after finding some hot young thing to dote on him and tell him how fucking rad he is, naturally, and then he gets to pontificating:
What great minds lie in the dust…. What gorgeous souls have vanished into the buried ages; what marvelous creatures are lost past the remotest memory… Nevermore will there be the like; now, in the last fleeting moments, humanity festers rich as rotten fruit. Rather than master and overpower our world, our highest aim is to cheat it through sorcery.
And then of course the chick he’s with immediately swoons and is all like take me take me and he’s all like nah, there’s still work to do. But whatever, it’s the 1950’s and Mr. Vance clearly isn’t in the enlightened feminist vanguard. What our ambitious young lad’s speech does point out, however, is that ambition is the key trait of humanity. He begins by lamenting the beautiful minds of long-ago ages, those which pushed humans to their limits of craft and understanding. Then the sun got fat and everyone was doomed so most people just went “eh, fuck it, let’s eat and hang out.” Essentially, according to this kid, humanity is spending its twilight years living off the stored riches of thousands and millions and billions of other people’s hard work. It’s like the worst kind of welfare nightmare. The capstone to this speech is of course the final sentence, which basically states that humanity’s highest function is to “master and overpower our world.” That may as well be the official slogan of the Industrial Revolution, and postwar America for that matter. This sentiment ultimately agrees with the overall sense of positivity gleaned from this collection of stories. Humans made it all the way to the finish line. Not because they lived on Earth in harmony with other living things, but because they overpowered it and beat it into submission. Good job, us!
I am, I must admit, curious to see where the other three books in this series go. The second novel is written some fifteen years after this first, and the final two were written in the early 1980’s. Will the ideas behind the fantasy broaden out a bit, perhaps alongside the more progressive environmental awareness of the late 60’s and the 1970’s? Or will he double down and really lean into the whole masters-of-earth-and-sky angle? From the end of this first volume, it could go either way.