The novel “The Dying Earth”, also known as “Mazirian the Magician”, by Jack Vance was published for the first time as a book in 1950 after the stories that compose it were previously published in a magazine. It’s the first novel of the cycle of the Dying Earth. In 2001 it was a finalist for the Retro Hugo Award, the retroactive version of the Hugo Award that considers fifty years old stories, as the best novel of the year.
In a very distant future, the Sun is near the end of its life but on Earth human beings are still living with other species now unknown. Many civilizations have arisen and fallen and decadent science and technology have become indistinguishable from magic.
On Earth, but also on Embelyon, a place separated from the planet, various characters seek adventures or knowledge among new and ancient dangers facing magicians and strange creatures.
Although it was published as a novel, “The Dying Earth” is clearly a collection of stories. Some characters appear in more than one story but a couple of them are totally disconnected from the others. In common there’s the setting in a future so far that the Sun is dying. In essence, rather than a novel it’s to be considered an anthology in which some characters appear in more than a story.
In that future there are still human beings on Earth who live among the relics of civilizations which sometimes are very ancient. The decay concerns knowledge too: one way to gain power is the ability to use magic but there are hints that spells were created using ancient knowledge such as mathematics. Occasionally in the stories various ancient machines appear but noone knows their principles of operation and everyone assumes that they work thanks to lost spells.
In this Earth which in many areas has become cold and desolate, monstrous species live, perhaps evolved spontaneously or perhaps created through genetic engineering, a form of magic known in the distant future.
These features mean that these stories have a totally fantasy flavor while having a science fiction base. Jack Vance wasn’t the first to describe a possible future in which advanced technologies are indistinguishable from magic but in “The Dying Earth” this concept is carried to the extreme.
The stories that make up “The Dying Earth” were written during the early years of Jack Vance’s career as a writer but they already contain his typical elements, in particular his ability to describe lands and people far away from us, in this case in time.
At that time, Jack Vance had to limit the length of his stories because of editorial requirements, yet he still managed to richly describe the dying Earth. Vance makes us feel melancholy exploring that world so decadent with its old buildings often in ruins, the strange creatures that live there and the various peoples who still inhabit it with their varied customs and traditions.
Today, the plots of the stories that make up “The Dying Earth” may seem obvious and even their setting far from the original. This happens because in the following years Jack Vance wrote other stories set in that very distant future and the cycle that resulted became such a classic that it inspired other writers.
Today there’s an entire subgenre of science fiction and fantasy stories set on a dying Earth. Of course, such stories existed even before Jack Vance started writing his stories but his influence on later writers has been remarkable.
Jack Vance’s influence goes beyond literature. In fact, the creators of the original role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons” incorporated various aspects of the cycle of the Dying Earth in the game. Other RPGs have included elements from the Dying Earth cycle and at one point a RPG officially set in that universe was created.
Today “The Dying Earth” is probably more suited to the tastes of fantasy readers but a work of Jack Vance always deserves to be read, especially a classic like this one.