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Fantasy media

Genre studies


The Dying Earth subgenre is a sub-category of science fantasy which takes place either at the end of life on Earth, or the End of Time, when the laws of the universe themselves fail. More generally, the Dying Earth sub-genre encompasses science fiction works set in the far distant future in a milieu of stasis or decline. Themes of world-weariness, innocence (wounded or otherwise), idealism, entropy, (permanent) exhaustion/depletion of many or all resources (such as soil nutrients), and the hope of renewal tend to pre-dominate.



The apocalyptic genre is nearly as old as literature itself, but the Dying Earth genre differs in that it deals not with catastrophic destruction, but with entropic exhaustion of the Earth. The genre was prefigured by the works of the Romantic movement. Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville's Le Dernier Homme (1805) narrates the tale of Omegare, the Last Man on Earth. It is a bleak vision of the future when the Earth has become totally sterile. Lord Byron's poem Darkness (1816) shows Earth after the Sun has died. Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man shows mankind dying out because of a plague.

The first science fiction work belonging to the genre is H. G. Wells' novella The Time Machine (1895), at the end of which the time traveller travels into the far future. There he sees the last few living things on a dying Earth, before returning to his own time to relate his tale to a circle of contemporaries.

Two brooding works by William Hope Hodgson would elaborate on Wells' vision. The House on the Borderland (1908) takes place in a house besieged by unearthly forces. The narrator then travels (without explanation and perhaps psychically) into a distant future in which humanity has died and then even further, past the death of Earth. Hodgson's later The Night Land (1912) describes a time, millions of years in the future, when the Sun had gone dark. The last few millions of the human race are gathered together in a gigantic metal pyramid, the Last Redoubt (probably the first arcology in literature) under siege from unknown forces and Powers outside in the dark.

Cover of book one of Jack Vance's seminal work The Dying Earth

Beginning in the 1930s. Clark Ashton Smith wrote a series of stories situated in Zothique, the last continent of Earth. As Smith himself described it in a letter to L. Sprague de Camp, dated November 3, 1953:

"Zothique, vaguely suggested by Theosophic theories about past and future continents, is the last inhabited continent of earth. The continents of our present cycle have sunken, perhaps several times. Some have remained submerged; others have re-risen, partially, and re-arranged themselves.
[...]The science and machinery of our present civilization have long been forgotten, together with our present religions. But many gods are worshipped; and sorcery and demonism prevail again as in ancient days. Oars and sails alone are used by mariners. There are no fire-arms—only the bows, arrows, swords, javelins, etc. of antiquity."

Under the influence of Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance wrote a series of fantasy books, called the Dying Earth series, which give the sub-genre its name.[1]


  • Brian AldissHothouse (also known as The Long Afternoon of Earth). The Earth has stopped rotating, the Sun has increased output, and plants are engaged in a constant frenzy of growth and decay, like a tropical forest enhanced a thousandfold; a few small groups of humans still live, on the edge of extinction, beneath the giant banyan tree that covers the entire day side of the earth.
  • Damien Broderick, ed. — Earth is But a Star: Excursions through Science Fiction to the Far Future, an anthology of canonical dying Earth short stories mostly set on Earth in the far future, interwoven with specially commissioned critical essays on the dying Earth theme.
  • John Brunner, Catch a Falling Star, an extended version of The 100th Millennium, first published as "Earth is But a Star" (1958) which features in the Broderick anthology, above. An early example of a far future tale influenced by Vance.
  • C. J. CherryhSunfall, a collection of dying earth short stories set in various locations on Earth in the far future. The tone, themes and fantasy conventions employed in this collection differ by story. (Later reprinted in The Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh).
  • Arthur C. ClarkeThe City and the Stars, a revision of the earlier 'Against the Fall of Night'.
  • Philip Jose Farmer - In Dark Is the Sun a tribesman from the distant future quests across the landscape of a dying earth. As with much of "Dying Earth" science fiction, this text ruminates on the nature of ending, and the meaning of time itself.
  • Edmond Hamilton — A novel, The City at World's End (1951) and the comic book story "Superman Under the Red Sun" from Action Comics #300 (1963).
  • M. John Harrison — a series of short stories and novels set in Viriconium. Viriconium is the capital city in which much of the action takes place. Viriconium lies on a dying Earth littered with the detritus of the millennia, seemingly now its own hermetic universe where chronology no longer applies.[2]
  • Michael MoorcockThe Dancers at the End of Time series.[3]
  • Gene WolfeThe Book of the New Sun chronicles the journey of a disgraced torturer named Severian to the highest position in the land. Severian, who has a perfect memory, tells the story in first person. The Book takes place in the distant future, where the sun has dimmed considerably.[4] Wolfe has stated that Vance's series directly influenced this work. The Book has several associated volumes.
  • H. P. Lovecraft and Robert H. Barlow - Till All The Seas (published posthumously, copyright 1970 by August Derleth) is a tale of the slow fading of human civilization and the extinction of all life on Earth, as the planet became a desert under the sun that has expanded into a Red Giant. The story centers on a male protagonist named Ull, the last of his tribe, and his journey across lands and abandoned cities in hopes of finding water, shelter and other survivors. But all he finds is desolation and death.

See also


  1. ^ The Dying Earth | Classic Book Reviews | SCI FI Weekly
  2. ^ M John Harrison: The Centauri Device and Viriconium - an infinity plus double review
  3. ^ The SF Site Featured Review: The Dancers at the End of Time
  4. ^ Lupine Nuncio - Gene Wolfe News and Rumors

External links

  • The Eldritch Dark — This website contains almost all of Clark Ashton Smith's written work, as well as a comprehensive selection of his art, biographies, a bibliography, a discussion board, readings, fiction tributes and more.
  • The Night Land- A website about "The Night Land" by William Hope Hodgson, includes also original fiction set in his universe, with influences of Cordwainer Smith and others Dying Earth authors.


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