The Dying Earth – Jack Vance (1950)
For some considerable time I laboured under the delusion that Science Fantasy was a phenomenon of the late 60s and early 70s. As it turns out, it existed far earlier. Science Fantasy was labelled as a sub-genre somewhat later than the emergence of this novel (although a magazine called ‘Science Fantasy’ was launched in 1950 and ran for some 80 issues) and although the definition of the phrase (like that of Science Fiction) is somewhat debatable, it is generally thought of to include works of the like of Vance, Michael Moorcock, and MJ Harrison, to name but three.
In my understanding of the term, SFa tends to use the imagery and devices of Fantasy, but usually with a scientific rationale to explain any instances of magic or sorcery. Thus, SFa , which certainly experienced a renaissance in the 60s and 70s, finds its beginnings in the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and, more importantly, Clark Ashton Smith.
Vance, heavily influenced by Smith and his far-future bleak and decaying landscapes, produced ‘The Dying Earth’ in 1950.
It’s a collection of stories, each focusing on one of a motley collection of characters; Turjan the Magician, T’Sais, the vat-created beauty of Pandelume, another magician, although it has to be noted that these ‘magicians’ are employing artefacts of ancient science of which they understand only the merest principles.
Thus the narrative flows from person to person, taking us on a journey through the deadly and fabulous landscape of the last days of Earth.
Story 5 – ‘Ulan Dhor’ shows signs of Vance’s later preoccupation with the subject of authority and society stagnated by organised religion and ignorance. It tells of a visit to an island riven by religious division. The islanders – whose religious differences cause them to dress in either green or grey – have become so blind to their enemies that they literally cannot see their neighbours if they are dressed in the colours of the enemy; a situation which has persisted for some five thousand years.
Otherwise, it is a novel of decadence; of society fallen into chaos and ignorance. In the final story, the central character is Guyal of Sfere, who is ridiculed because he asks questions of the world around him, so irritating his complacent father that he is sent off to find the Curator of the Museum of Man, who holds the answer to all questions.
That sort of thing never ends well.