Literature / Dying Earth

A classic series of Low Fantasy novels by Jack Vance. Several other authors have written novels in the setting, which has become something of a Shared Universe. It is considered one of the seminal works of fantasy and has had a huge influence on the genre.

Welcome to Earth, a few million years in the future. Magic is back, mostly displacing science, and it is both After the End and Just Before the End: Civilization has pretty much collapsed, and the Sun is close to going out. Earth's remaining inhabitants are generally aware of this but have no means to escape their increasingly hot and barren Crapsack World. Those that haven't become religious zealots are largely nihilistic fatalists, engaging in what debauchery they can in the time left.

The first book, The Dying Earth, consists of short stories about different characters (most notably Turjan of Miir and Rhialto the Marvellous). The second two books, The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga, center on a contest of wills between Cugel the Clever and Iucounu the Laughing Magician. Thief, charlatan, con man, and whatever else he needs to be to get the most benefit with the least work, Cugel teeters on the border between Anti-Hero and Villain Protagonist. When he botches a robbery of Iucounu's mansion, the wizard teleports him across the world with a command to bring back an artifact he wants... and includes a small demon attached to his liver and equipped with various sharp implements to encourage his compliance. The series relates his various adventures attempting to return and revenge himself on Iucounu, while conning as many people as possible out of their valuables and/or virginity along the way. The fourth book, Rhialto the Marvelous, chronicles a mystery that concerns Earth's last great conclave of magicians, who turn out to be just as self-serving and underhanded as their inferiors.

There is also a Tabletop RPG adaptation designed by Robin Laws and published by Pelgrane Press in 2001.


  • Affably Evil: A characteristic of many villains in the Dying Earth. You may intend to devour, enslave or zombify your opponent, but there's no call to be rude or dishonest about it.
  • An Aesop: One of the stories with T'sais is definitely one, some of the other Dying Earth stories could be said to be one also. Arguably, Cugel the Clever learns that backstabbing is bad and trust is good by the end of his second book.
  • Anti-Hero: Liane the Wayfarer. Also Cugel. Also Magnus Ridolph. In fact many of Vance's characters are anti-heroes.
  • Artificial Human: T'sais and T'sain
  • Artistic License Physics: Earth's sun is not of a sort that will slowly fade to red and then die. It will first expand large enough to kill everything on the face of the Earth, and then shrink and stop giving enough light and heat to keep the remaining cinder from freezing.
  • Asshole Victim: Quite often, the Good Is Not Nice hero preys on fellow rogues.
  • Ax-Crazy: T'sais starts out like this.
  • Badass Bookworm: The Curator; Guyal of Sfere.
  • Black and Gray Morality: Altruistic actions are quite rare, and a character who provides such is either about to get fleeced or is a scoundrel preparing a double-cross. That's leaving aside the various cannibals, mad scientists and religious zealots who don't even pretend to be nice to strangers.
  • Black Comedy Rape: Cugel is a repeat offender, though more notably in Eyes of the Overworld (1960) than in its sequel Cugel's Saga (1984).
  • Brain in a Jar: Rogol Domedonfors, ruler of Ampridatvir
  • The Casanova: Rhialto the Marvellous. Liane the Wayfarer and Cugel the Clever both consider themselves such but are not.
  • Catch Phrase: Chun's is also his My Name Is Inigo Montoya and his Pre-Mortem One-Liner.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Ampridatvir
  • Character Development: Cugel the Clever behaves quite differently towards the end of the second book, capable of making friends who he does not plan to backstab later.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Cugel the Clever goes through one and a half books before he is finally cured of this disease
  • Contemptible Cover: The cover of the very first edition of The Dying Earth.
  • Crapsack World: Civilization's gone, monsters infest the wilderness, and the sun's gonna go out any day now. Let's have another bacchanal while we wait...
  • Disney Death: When T'sain is fatally injured saving Turjan's life, Turjan promises to return her brain to his Artificial Human vat and construct a new body for it.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Pandelume looks like one, to the point that anyone who looks upon him will instantly go insane, but he behaves like a pretty nice guy. Magnatz is a more straightforward example, since he is unambiguously evil.
  • Everything's Better with Rainbows: The Excellent Prismatic Spray, a widely used instant-kill spell that inspired the many "Prismatic Whatevers" in Dungeons and Dragons and beyond.
  • Evil Twin: Inverted. T'sain is deliberately made as a good twin to T'sais.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Chun the Unavoidable.
  • Expanded Universe: Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by no less than George R.R. Martin.
  • Eye Scream: The prey of Chun the Unavoidable get to contribute to his cloak of eyes.
  • Geeky Turn-On: When Guyal makes an impassioned declaration of his desire for knowledge, Shierl's reaction is "Guyal of Sfere, I am yours, I melt for you..."
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Again inverted with T'sais. While we don't know for certain the fallout of having her eyes opened to seeing the world-as-it-is, she no longer perceives it as a place full of hideous monstrosity best served by killing, and likely finally found the beauty she was looking for.
  • Good Is Dumb: Morreion was at least much nicer when he was an eccentric old hermit with most of his memories stored in Ioun Stones.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Cugel the Clever, who was downright evil for the first book he was in (in general, calling him good is a bit of a stretch).
  • Half-Human Hybrid: A variety of them appear. A surprising number are man-eaters.
  • Happy Place: The Overworld.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: A recurring motif of the series.
  • Jackass Genie: The sandestins in the Dying Earth stories, especially the ones that serve Rhialto the Marvellous. Justified: they are a race with much more potent powers than Earth's wizards, and despise the fact that they can be compelled to obey.
  • Just Before the End: The Dying Earth, of course.
  • Laughably Evil: Iucounu. Whether he counts as "evil" in this Black and Gray Morality setting is debatable, but if you cross him your punishment will involve some sort of humorous irony... and pain.
  • Lost Technology: Exists hand in hand with Forgotten Lore: the great magicians of Earth's final age know a tenth of the magical lore of previous ages, and nobody bothers to invent - or even maintain any really advanced technology. Various surprisingly functional remnants of magic and technology turn up throughout the series.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The Eyes of the Overworld.
  • Love Redeems: T'sain to T'sais.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Several examples among creatures and monsters, but the spells deserve special mention for combining black comedy with You Do Not Want To Know: the Spell of Forlorn Encystment, Lugwiler's Dismal Itch, the Spell of the Macroid Digit (in which one toe of the target swells to the size of a house), and many more.
  • Never Found the Body: Iucounu was most likely absorbed by Sadlark, but there's no way to prove it.
  • Only Sane Man: Rhialto the Marvellous seems like this compared to the rest of the magicians he deals with.
  • Punished with Ugly: Javanne's punishment, inflicted by a god who specialises in Laser-Guided Karma.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Guess which side it's on. Go ahead, guess.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Cugel thinks of himself as a Man of Wealth and Taste and Lovable Rogue. In reality he's basically a Jerkass Dirty Coward who regularly gets Out-Gambitted and Hoist by His Own Petard.
  • Stay on the Path: Enforced for one character in a short story whose father's blessing protects him while on the road.
  • They Killed Kenny Again: Liane the Wayfarer is stabbed and left for dead in one story, and goes on to a more final doom in another.
  • Time Travel: Rhialto the Marvellous does this often in one of his stories, and Cugel also spends some time in the distant past. (Even these jaunts are in the far, far future of Earth.)
  • Vancian Magic: The original example, from which Dungeons & Dragons' magic system was lifted pretty much whole-cloth.
  • Villain Protagonist: Mazirian the Magician, Liane the Wayfarer and Cugel the Clever.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: Sadlark is a powerful and dangerous being, but is rendered completely ineffective by water.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Cugel has a startling tendency to stumble upon items that are desperately sought by others - in some cases, items that have been lost for centuries. The bracelet of the lords of Castle Cil, the representation of totality, and the central node of the being Sadlark are all found by Cugel by sheer dumb luck.
  • Wicked Cultured: Many things and people in the Dying Earth could be described this way, especially the Deodands and Pelgranes, man-eating monsters who enjoy conversing in the eloquent Jack Vance style.