Subgenre Study: Dying Earth

The Dying Earth subgenre is very similar to the apocalyptic fiction subgenre we explored earlier.  The key difference between the two is that apocalyptic fiction tends to deal with some major catastrophe that is threatening all life, whereas in Dying Earth things have more or less just faded over time until nothing is left and the planet is dying.  It’s a sudden process vs. a gradual one.  It’s a literal exploration of entropy, or the idea that all systems will eventually tend to go towards a more disordered state (though that is not actually what the Second Law of Thermodynamics says, but that is a discussion to have somewhere else).

While it is typically a subgenre of science fiction, it can have fantasy elements, or even feature a fantasy society that has replaced our current technological one.

Perhaps the best known of this subgenre is H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, where a man travels far into the future only to find civilization has collapsed and humankind has changed so much it is hardly recognizable.

Dying Earth books often feature lone survivors searching the world for a better place.  Whether they find it or not depends.  Often resources are scarce and the world as we know it has changed dramatically, from the oceans rising, to tectonic activity, to changes in our solar system (such as the loss of the moon or the sun).

The Dying Earth subgenre is one of the oldest in modern science fiction, with examples dating back to the early 19th century.

While the subgenre usually deals with the end of our planet (hence the name) it can also deal with the end of the universe or the end of time.  The important, defining aspect is that this end is the cumulation of a long process of events, often over centuries or millennia, instead of something sudden.

Anything to recommend in this subgenre, Squiders?  Do you find it depressing or fascinating?


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christopher on 2011/11/11 at 7:36 PM

    It can be depressing, but then, anything can.

    I can recommend an older Phillip Jose Farmer book from the genre, though; Dark is the Sun. The earth isn’t the only thing dying– the entire universe seems to have run down– but the hazards and cultures of his dying Earth are very interesting, seemed well thought out, and Farmer is a pretty awesome writer, even if I don’t always like his stuff. (Never cared for Riverworld.) (Also? This one ended on a hopeful note!)


  2. Posted by Chris High on 2011/11/12 at 4:56 PM

    I’ve never read any, but Jack Vance is best known for his Dying Earth series…inventor of the Magic Missile 🙂

    Also, Gene Wolf’s Book of the New Sun tetralogy was excellent. Very difficult read as it’s a very complex book with a lot of symbolism, an unreliable narrator, and a lot of fucking with time & space. Definitely need to re-read it at some point.


  3. I can enjoy the genre, but I prefer hopeful endings or I’m just all bummed at the end.

    (So I guess that means I like Dying Earth books with characters who travel back in time to prevent it? Does that sub-genre have its own name?)


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