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Literature / Dying Earth

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Dying Earth is a classic series of Low Fantasy novels by Jack Vance. It is considered one of the seminal works of fantasy and on Science Fantasy and has had a huge influence.

Welcome to Earth, billions of years in the future. Magic has returned and has, for the most part, displaced science. The setting is both After the End and Just Before the End. Civilization has largely 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 Mazirian the Magician). 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 sentient alien creature 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.

A few other authors have also contributed to the setting. Michael Shea was given permission to publish A Quest for Simbilis. This book is a direct sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld. It was later superseded by Vance's own sequel Cugel's Saga. There is also the anthology Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin.

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


  • Accidental Misnaming: When Cugel asks one of the Smolod elders for information about the violet cusps, the elder refers to the demon Unda-Hrada as "Underherd" several times.
  • Adventure-Friendly World: The population is low, and international relations are practically nonexistent, the latter likely due to the sheer danger of travel. As such, single individuals can have huge influence over events and society, and there’s plenty of monsters, ruins and lost lore to go around.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • After the End: The Earth depicted here is a post-apocalyptic one, though the reasons it got so bad are never fully revealed. Society has regressed to a often feudal and occasionally tribal existence. Actual cities are rare, but ruins are everywhere. Most traces of Mankind's knowledge have been lost to time or destroyed by ignorance. Monsters infesting even the smallest woods pick away at the remaining populations.
  • Alien Sky: Embelyon's sky is a shimmering display of ever-changing colored light. On Earth, the moribund sun shines a deep red in an indigo sky; during Cugel's foray to an era a million years earlier, he's surprised by its golden-orange sunlight in a sky that's still blue. The Moon is evidently long gone by Cugel's day, and one passing comment implies that there'd been more than one such satellite in a prior epoch.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification:
    • According to the Curator, who knows what he is talking about, Demons and demon realms are the coagulated mass of mankind's debauched desires, fantasies, and vices given form by magic.
    • The unnamed god of justice from the first novel is said to embody the traits of the morally-upright culture that dreamed him into existence through their desire for a divine patron.
  • Anti-Hero or Villain Protagonist: Liane the Wayfarer. Also Cugel. In fact many of Vance's characters are anti-heroes.
  • Artificial Human: T'sais and T'sain. Downplayed by the three Mimes on board the Aventura, who are treated as such but whose origins are a mystery (meaning they may be regular, if highly changed, humans)
  • Art Initiates Life: Strongly implied with Ameth, although never stated outright. Alleged in the case of the Muses, which were or at least appeared to be ceramic figurines when first discovered.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Earth's sun is not of a sort that will slowly fade to red and then die. It will first expand and grow large enough to engulf and destroy Mercury, Venus and the Earth, then go nova and destroy most of what's left of the solar system, and then shrink and stop giving enough light and heat to keep the remaining cinders from freezing.
    • There are numerous mentions of how the sun's light is failing, but no indication that the temperature on Earth has been impacted in the slightest by its reduced output. Characters who speculate about their fate once it goes out entirely seem solely concerned with it being forever dark, not forever cold.
  • Asshole Victim: Quite often, the Good Is Not Nice hero preys on fellow rogues. In Cugel's case, this trope goes both ways.
  • Ax-Crazy: T'sais started out like this, as she was incapable of seeing any beauty whatsoever. To her, every living being was an abomination which deserved only a quick death.
  • 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, past ruler of Ampridatvir, is discovered in this condition.
  • Brawn Hilda: Turilia. Soldinck is tricked into spending the night with her, and returns to the ship limping.
  • The Casanova: Normally he isn't The Casanova, but in the section of Cugel's Saga called "The Seventeen Virgins", Cugel as a caravan guard "deflorates" fifteen of the seventeen titular virgins over the course of a 10-day journey. The girls were all apparently perfectly willing, since when questioned by the Grand Thearch of Latham they "merely raise their eyes to the ceiling and whistle between their teeth," rather than accuse Cugel of anything.
  • 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...
  • Cute Mute: The three Artificial Human mimes on board the Avventura are waif-like women with childish personalities. Even Cugel is disgusted that the womanizing passenger is attempting to seduce them; they are too innocent for any normal person to be able to view them sexually.
  • Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: Pandelume is more than happy to take any mage competent enough to reach him under his wing, and tries to bring out the best in his students. He shows such incredible remorse that his mistakes while creating T’Sais have caused her suffering that his main goal in recruiting students seems to be finding someone who can fix her (In a setting where people callously kill without a thought). He’s also some kind of entity that is so horrificly wrong that glimpsing him drives you mad or kills you on the spot.
  • 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.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Twango's manse is a microcosm of unrestrained capitalism. His workers are tricked into taking on a debt, must pay hand over fist for basic necessities, work all day to undo the debt they accumulated , and then are incessantly tempted by Twango with lush rooms, fancy items, and gourmet meals that they can't possibly afford but can instead purchase on credit at even more exorbitant prices, lengthening the cycle. He pays them a terse or two per scale they dig up, then sells those scales for twenty times that.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: Forests, especially in the short stories of the first book, are synonymous with death.
  • Extreme Omnivore: Rather than provision Cugel, Iuconnu equips him with an amulet which can render inanimate materials - driftwood, sand, etc - edible. Their actual taste doesn't change, unfortunately for Cugel.
  • Eldritch Abomination:
    • Pandelume looks like one, to the point that anyone who looks upon him will instantly go insane, but he behaves like a rather friendly person (surprising considering the setting). Magnatz is a more straightforward example, since he is unambiguously evil.
    • Blikdak is basically a gigantic face whose leaking nasal fluids take on lives of their own as monstrous phantoms and who is attempting to devour knowledge itself.
    • Sadlark. Even when broken down into nothing more than scales he cannot be killed, and can still reflexively defend himself and feed on souls (which Cugel uses to great effect, to the point the Skybreak Spatterlight can be considered his signature weapon in his second book).
  • 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 Counterpart: Downplayed, since Cugel’s character development ends with him as neutral rather than truly good, but Iolo is essentially who he used to be in the first book, back before he was nigh incapable of even the most informal forms of cooperation. Ironically, Cugel’s newfound moral compass initially lets Iolo get the better of him until Cugel’s elaborate revenge finally plays out.
  • Evil Twin: Inverted. T'sain is deliberately made as a good twin to T'sais.
  • Evolutionary Stasis: Even a few million years are enough time for natural selection and genetic drift to significantly alter living species — for reference, humanity went from being essentially bipedal chimps to its current form in about three million years. The millions of years that would have transformed our world into the Dying Earth would also have seen humanity evolve into something we likely wouldn't perceive as human anymore. While offshoot races adapted to the planet are shown, mainline humans like Cugel are still the majority despite not having adapted or changed at all. Familiar animals such as horses are also present.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Chun the Unavoidable. He will warp reality if there is no other way to get to his quarry.
  • Eye Scream: The prey of Chun the Unavoidable get to contribute to his cloak of eyes.
  • Fingore: When the residents of a fishing village hold a feast in honor of Cugel and Garstang, everyone attending, including Cugel and Garstang, are required to cut off a finger for the communal cook-pot as a symbol of unity.
  • Funnel Cloud Journey: The Call To The Violent Cloud spell summons a "pillar of boiling black smoke" which transports the caster where directed. The caster must state explicitly that they are to arrive alive.
  • 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..."
  • Gender Bender: Weaponized by the Manthe as a forced recruitment tool ("ensqualmation") for her feud of witches vs wizards.
  • Giving Them the Strip: Ulan Dhor's gray cloak gets trapped when the dome of an ancient air-car he's fiddling with slams shut upon it, and he has to ditch the cloak in haste to avoid being dragged off by the activated vehicle. Unfortunately this loss exposes him as a stranger and potential Raider, causing the local folk to stone him and his companion.
  • 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.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: A variety of them appear. A surprising number are man-eaters.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Cugel goes from utterly horrid scoundrel to True Neutral wanderer. It’s rather telling that around the halfway point of book two, people begin to stick their necks out for him (like covering for the theft of the ship, or aiding him against enemy wizards) and he actively tries to avoid having to cash in these favors due to the risks involved for them, whereas earlier he gleefully would have used their dead bodies as stepping stores.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Yellig and Malser. Neither one can imagine a life without the other but after they escape they both become womanizing playboys, while they never show any romantic interest in each other or men in general.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: A recurring motif of the series.
  • Honey Trap: Llith, the Golden Witch makes men enamord with her, and then sends them to their certain death at the hands of Chun, who returns a thread or two of her tapestry for each kill.
  • Hustler: Cugel the Clever, who twice works his way from the far north back to Almery, cheating and tricking the various communities and individuals he meets. Plenty of other examples con him too.
  • I Ate WHAT?!: Rialto's announcement that what they'd thought was an ancient tavern, with still-intact flasks of alcohol, was actually an embalming parlor rather puts the kibosh on his colleagues' drinking party.
  • Idle Rich: Most rich non-Wizards are this. They do quite a lot of socializing and ceremonies, but very little leading. Wizards avert this, though their idea of “keeping busy” is very strange to outside observers.
  • Jackass Genie: The sandestin in the Dying Earth stories, especially the ones that serve Rhialto the Marvelous. 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. For example, when he catches Cugel in the act of robbing his mansion, he puts on an (intentionally) hilariously transparent act of thinking Cugel is a lost merchant.
  • Living Shadow: Windstick Devils, strange ghostly beings who raid caravans for trinkets and food, are described as looking like this.
  • 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. Unlike many examples, the users are aware they live in a lie and can leave any time by removing the eye-cusps. The "Overworld" lifestyle means suffering even worse conditions than the rest of the inhabitants of the Dying Earth (what they perceive as a "feast" is likely a bowl of coarse gruel, their "palace" might be a rotting hut, etc.) but the illusions are so convincing most consider it Worth It despite the dire effects it has on their health.
    • More traditional is the mysterious Yacht that hounds Cugel and the pilgrims as they move along the desert shore. Looking at its luxurious features and beautiful inhabitants causes you to go into a trance, sometimes for hours, after which you fall into a deep existential depression once it departs. As the depression worsens you become increasingly desperate to see it again, to the point a pilgrim decides he'd rather die alone in the desert than live a long life where he can never see the boat again. The boat, being intangible, is implied to also be related to the Overworld.
  • Love Redeems: Platonically, between T'sain to T'sais, who were both created from the same pattern and look identical. T'sais does not immediately attempt to destroy T'sain as she does everyone else she meets because T'sian looks just like her and tells her that she loves her as a sister. Instead T'sais resolves to change her ways.
  • MacGuffin: Sadlark's central scale, called the Skybreak Spatterlight, drives much of the plot in Cugel’s second book.
  • Magic Misfire: Cugel finds out the hard way that incorrectly cast spells tend to malfunction in the most inconvenient ways.
  • The Magocracy: Wizards are normally the highest (unofficial) authorities in their regions, even if royals theoretically outrank them.
  • Monstrous Humanoid:
    • Deodands are described as incredibly handsome-looking men. If not for the pitch black skin and snake like eyes being known features of Deodands, most inhabitants likely wouldn't be able to tell them from the "normal" (at least for this eon) high varied human races that dot the planet.
    • Pelgranes are also humanoid, but are overtly monstrous, with wings and claws and an elongated snout.
    • Nissifer, the murderous passenger of the Aventura, turns out to be a sort of wasp-human who licks bones clean.
  • Moral Myopia: Displayed by many characters, but Cugel in particular is quick to feel moral outrage when others dare to rob or cheat him out of property, jobs, or status that he already went to such trouble to steal from and/or cheat out of others.
  • Motivation on a Stick: The Galante and vessels like it are pulled through the water by harnessed teams of giant worms, which are kept swimming via bait dangled in front of them.
  • 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.
    • Chun the Unavoidable is one of the best examples, but running doesn't help once you've attracted his attention.
  • Never Found the Body: Iucounu was most likely absorbed by Sadlark, but there's no way to prove it.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: Played with in the character of T'sais. She does indeed want the end of all life, seeing it as disgusting, but unlike most examples of this trope (Who are usually the Big Bad and capable of omnicide) she is just a warrior and has absolutely no way to act on her wish other than painstakingly killing everything and anything she comes across (including flowers).
  • Only Sane Man: Rhialto the Marvellous seems like this compared to the rest of the magicians he deals with. He has his quirks, and has a tendency to overestimate himself (especially when it comes to romance), but when the chips are down he's capable of recognizing serious threats and reacting accordingly, while most other magicians are entirely self-absorbed and consumed with meaningless distractions or petty grudges.
  • Psychopomp: The local religion in Farwan insists that the Winged Beings are this trope, only selecting those fated to die for their attentions. Cugel's direct observations suggest it's a subversion, and the Beings are just predators that hunt by scooping people up and dropping them.
  • Punished with Ugly: Javanne's punishment, inflicted by a god who specializes in Laser-Guided Karma. The karmic part is that she had done the exact same thing to other people before.
  • Purple Is Powerful: Phandaal, accounted the last of Earth's great sorcerers, was partial to this color; when Cugel robs Iucounu's tower, he selects only those books with purple covers to take, knowing these volumes are more likely to contain potent spells and secrets.
  • Reduced to Ratburgers: Worms ("helminths") became one of Morreion's dietary staples during his long exile on a near-lifeless planet at the fringes of the universe.
  • Restraining Bolt: To keep Cugel on track to find a magic eye-cusp, Iucounu implants a nasty little critter named Firx in his abdomen. Every time Cugel even thinks of going off-mission, Firx painfully squeezes Cugel's liver.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Demons have been sealed throughout the lands by societies that are no longer around to upkeep the prisons. During several story arcs they break out, usually due to Cugel in some way.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very far on the cynical end. When one sees the debauchery, sadism, ignorance and brutality that infest every corner of the Dying Earth, it begins to seem more and more like a Mercy Kill that the sun is about to go out.
  • 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. That said, by the events of Cugel's Saga, his wits have improved to the point he actually manages to live up to that "The Clever" epithet during several story arcs, when his own greed doesn't get in the way.
  • Stay on the Path: Enforced for one character in a short story, whose father's blessing protects him while on the road.
  • Tarnishing Their Own Beauty: Guyal of Sfere is forced to choose the most beautiful girl in the village; he's surprised to find that all the candidates have tried to make themselves look grubby and unkempt. Only when he's made his final decision does he discover why: the winner's prize is to be sacrificed to the demon Blikdak.
  • 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.
  • Those Two Guys: Yellig and Malser, Twango’s long suffering workers. They’ve suffered together for so long that even when they rob Cugel and escape, they decide to evenly split the loot evenly and live together in Saskervoy.
  • 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.)
  • Vampiric Draining: Sadlark's scales do this when in contact with bare flesh, with the degree of this depending on the grade of scale. At low grades it's an uncomfortable sucking sensation at the point of contact. Higher grade scales have cost people fingers and entire arms due to careless handling. The highest grade, the Skybreak Spatterlight, devours its victims entirely and instantaneously, soul and all.
  • Vancian Magic: The original example, from which Dungeons & Dragons' magic system was lifted pretty much whole-cloth. However, this sort of magic mostly appears in the early stories; the great magicians of the later-written tales are less constrained.
  • 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.
  • Weaponized Headgear: Cugel's hat, once he attaches the deadly Pectoral Sky-break Spatterlight to its brim.
  • Weaponized Stench: How Nissifer won sole occupancy of the best cabin on the Avventura, by making it reek so terribly that nobody else wanted it.
  • 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.