The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950)

Dying EarthDescribed primarily as a fantasy, I wondered if Jack Vance’s 1950 curio The Dying Earth might find a place in this history of science fiction. After all, it is set way into Earth’s future as the planet is dying. It also occurred to me that it might be resonant to the third of Arthur C Clarke’s ‘law’: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That first appeared in 1973, so I wondered if this was, perhaps, an inspiration.

I read The Dying Earth as part of the Fantasy Masterworks collection Tales of the Dying Earth published by Gollancz in 2002.

I say curio because I was more than surprised to realise that The Dying Earth isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of loosely interconnected short stories all set in the far future where magic is real and humanity has fractured. Everyone knows that earth is on its last legs, and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of technology. Indeed, wizards and demons are the primary focus of life. Earth has moved on beyond anything recognisable, with a collection of weird and exotic creatures, and varieties of humanoid species.

There are 6 stories in the book. Some mention characters or locations from other stories, but other than that, they don’t really link in theme (maybe the search for lost knowledge at a push) or purpose; only setting. There is a vastly reduced population. Wizards are the predominant power, and are the only ones who understand magic (although maybe not its origins). Women appear mostly subservient to men. There are ruins of long lost civilisations. Magic is carried out in a very traditional method; practitioners memorise and recant long and complex spells, and use objects or relics for protection. There is a suggestion that magic originated in maths and sciences long forgotten.

Each story is mostly a disappointing adventure romp. Mizirian is a greedy wizard seeking more power. He desires to create artificial life in a vat, but lacks the skills or smarts to do so. Turjan also wants to create life and ventures to another realm to learn how. He is also the guardian of the books which contain the 100 spells which remain in human knowledge. Guyal is seeking a ‘Museum of Man’. He hopes to find all is answers from someone known as the Curator, an apparent font of all knowledge. Ulan is a young trainee wizard who wants to find ancient tablets containing lost knowledge. Liane is vain adventurer, seeking out women, who embarks on a mission to steal a tapestry from a witch. T’sais is an artificial woman created by Pandelume, but she can only see evil and ugliness in everything. She has a sister who is the perfect woman.

In each story, stuff happens for no apparent reason. For example, in Guyal’s tale, he meets a woman and an old man, and there is some weird interaction with music – the woman tries to get him to play the man’s instrument. But then the story swiftly moves on with almost no comment or effect on Guyal. There is some mention of technology of former times, but again, this is more about lost knowledge. Ulan comes across a ‘magic car’ but no-one knows how it works.

While in this future, women appear to be subservient to men, there are some female characters with agency. Other than T’sais (although of course she was created by a man), there is Lith in Liane’s story. She refuses to serve Liane when he demands it. So maybe Vance is showing some progressive political thought for the time?

There is no indication of the history of Earth; how we get to Vance’s future from our present. It makes me wonder why he set it on Earth at all. The fact that the planet is dying only gets a few passing mentions (and maybe an indication that the majority of humans left for other worlds eons ago). It certainly isn’t a primary concern of the inhabitants of these stories. If Vance had written these stories without referring to Earth at all, but on an unnamed dying planet, this would never have come under the science fiction radar for me.

There are hints and nods that magic and technology are linked but these ideas aren’t explored in full. Magic is magic, I think, not advanced technology. The lack of through-narrative and no real depth of meaning in the collection as a whole meant that I found it difficult to engage. However, Vance’s writing is full of interesting and imaginative diversions. Which seems to be the best thing to say about The Dying Earth. His use of fantasy language is full on, and the world he has built is complex and seems to have an internal logic. But I just don’t think it hits any science fiction notes. Hints and allusions are not sufficient for me, and I’m just not a fan of empty fantasy stories of wizards and thieves.