Jack Vance originally wrote the stories that make up the collection The Dying Earth in the late 1940s. The premise is a simple one, but allows for much creativity: the Earth has grown old, its Sun now a red giant, lowering in the sky and ready to die any moment. Science and scientism have had their day, but that day is long in the past and the remnants of the scientific age are to be found only in diluted form, mixed with sorcery, which has survived its thinning and come back into ascendancy. Because of the Earth's great age, and because modern ideas of history are long gone, mankind on Vance's dying Earth does not remember much (if anything) of the Earth's distant past. All that we in the twenty-first century hold in esteem is but dust.
It is into this epistemological morass that Vance takes his reader, into a world that is built with familiar fantasy tropes, such as the wizard, the damsel in distress and the quest with "plot coupons," but the stories are given an edge because the referential nature of the fantasy tropes that Vance employs (is the author trying to comment on society?) is blatantly obvious. But this is not to say that Vance wears his commentary on his sleeve. These are first and foremost stories and should be read as such. Rather, it is a tribute to Vance's skill as a writer that he can imbue his stories with that extra discursive layer merely through the setting.
The book is composed of six stories of varying length, the longest of which could probably be classified as a novella. The first three stories are inter-related in that a character that wanders through one appears as the main character in the next, creating a strong sense of unity within Vance's secondary world. As mentioned above, the plots are familiar to fantasy readers. The first story, "Turjan of Miir," follows a fairly standard quest structure with the eponymous character having to seek out certain objects in order to be granted the secret to cloning. In "Turjan of Miir," Vance immediately drops the reader into his dying Earth, creating and resolving simultaneously questions about where the story takes place. It is a world both familiar and alien within the same sentence.
In "T'sais" Vance draws most succinctly the theme that runs through the whole collection: that what we consider as degraded may actually be more due to our modernism than due to the degeneration of the object. The story follows T'sais, a cloned woman who suffers from a flaw in her cloning that causes her to view everything askew. Where we would find beauty and goodness, she sees ugliness and evil, and vice versa. After a moment of epiphany on her homeworld of Embelyon, T'sais heads to Earth to discover and learn what love truly is. There she encounters the degradation that is rampant on the dying Earth and she wonders about what is truly good and what true love is.
Vance uses T'sais's topsy-turvy morality to look at the condition of modern morals. T'sais's inability to discern what is beautiful acts as a foil to the dismalness of the Earth. By having her see what beauty there is as ugly, Vance shows that even in Earth's old age there is still beauty in what remains and that perhaps we should re-examine in our own lives what we consider to be beautiful.
The other noteworthy story in the collection is the final story, "Guyal of Sfere," which tells the tale of a young man who bucks tradition and convention by actually wanting to know about the past. He acts upon the rote answer of "it's in the Museum of Man" by deciding to make the dangerous journey there. On his way he falls in with Shierl, who is to be a sacrifice to the creatures that have taken over the Museum of Man.
The story is the last in the collection and as such there is a natural expectation by the reader that in Guyal's quest, one might finally receive some answers about how the Earth got to the state it is in. Vance, however, does not feel the need to grant the reader's wish and instead seems to be aware of this desire. Throughout the story the reader is expecting an information dump of Earth's past, but instead is given a standard sword-and-sorcery story.
It is this almost postmodern flaunting of conventions without the postmodern experimentation that makes The Dying Earth such an enjoyable read. I have spent much of my life reading fantastic literature, but rarely do I come across a book that keeps me on my toes by doing exactly what a fantasy book should, but with enough self-awareness to make me expect something more. The Dying Earth has lent its name to a whole subgenre of fantastic literature (both fantasy and science fiction), and it rightly deserves that position, for it pushes and pokes at the edges of the very subgenre it is meant to define.