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The 16 Best Dying Earth Stories

As a genre, dying earth has fallen out of favor recently, which is a shame because it's an incredibly remarkable one. It offers a wonderful opportunity to meld parts of dystopian fiction, swords and sorcery, fantasy, science fiction, space opera, and all set under a swollen red sun as the planet dies around them.

16. A World Out of Time by Larry Niven

Unlike most of Larry Niven’s scifi, which tends to focus on his known space universe, A World Out Of Time stands almost completely alone, with only some minor links to his other work. It’s a time travel story twice over, first with a dying man being cryogenically frozen who gets resurrected in a dystopian future ruled by a totalitarian government, where his mind is implanted into the body of a criminal. Sent on a terraforming mission in a small ship, he uses a chance to escape, and after traveling hundreds of years at relativistic speed, he returns to Earth millions of years in the future: where the sun is a red giant, and the Earth has been moved to orbit Jupiter. It’s now a planet where the equator is unliveably hot and the poles are rather pleasant, and society is ruled by a race of immortal boys, while a weaponized Pluto is aimed at them. It’s all incredibly crazy and set so far in the future that Niven gleefully plays with a a truly weird dying earth environment.

15. Nightwings by Robert Silverberg

Three novellas combined into one full length novel about a far flung future where humans are rigorously divided into castes, like the genetically engineered Fliers and tech using Watchers. The main characters are a small group of travelers who visit three ancient cities: Roum (Rome), Jorslem (Jerusalem) and Perris (Paris). The first novella/third of the book one a Hugo and was nominated for a Nebula, and is easily the strongest part of the book. Like much of the dying earth genre, it takes place so far into the future that it can almost be considered fantasy, for there is much fantastic in it, and the technology is either forgotten or so far from what we know that it might as well be magic. The Fliers have fairy wings engineered on their backs, and the world is so far in the future that alien invasions are a constant worry, and most of the population died out due to weather control experiments going horribly wrong.

14. A Billion Days of Earth by Doris Piserchia

Three million years from now, humans are approaching godhood, and have elevated many other animals to human-like status — most notably the rats. The story centers around three creatures: the rat Rik, who’s deeply unpleasant. The monk-like canine Jak who is a deep and caring soul, but hampered by his lack of hands, and Sheen, an amorphous, death dealing blob without memories, one who seduces creatures and devours their egos. Dark and uniquely funny, the world of A Billion Days is not a pleasant one, and neither the humans nor the animals are particularly pleasant denizens.

13. The Black Grail by Damien Broderick

When the sun begins to die, you know it’s a bad thing for the planet Earth, regardless of how far in the future it is. In The Black Grail the godlike denizens of the far, far flung future it takes place in are attempting to keep the planet and sun going by using time travel to steal energy from younger incarnations of the world. A warrior born in a dark age 1000 years from now is accidentally snatched by them, transported to the end of the planet, and with his memory wiped sent on a number of quests by them to stop whoever is interfering with their plot to save the planet.

12. Dark Is the Sun by Philip José Farmer

You want far future, how’s this: a story that takes place 15 billion years from now, when the Earth’s core is cooling and the big crunch is under way. Farmer is a distinctly well known author, and his skill at world building and wordcraft are evident as ever in Dark is the Sun, where he indulges in the wonderfully weird settings that he seems to love. While a bit on the long side, it’s a definite classic as what starts out as a band of exiles from their small tribe hunting down a thief gradually grows into a plot to save the surviving humans from the heat death of the universe.

11. Viriconium by M John Harrison

The Viriconium series was published as three novels and a collection of short stories, all of which have been collected now into a single volume of this influential dying earth series. It takes place in world littered by the detritus of the past, centered on the great city whom the series is named after — but more than that, it delves into metafiction, playing with how much of Viriconium exists within the stories, and how much is a construct that we as readers use. At points in the story the author deliberately shifts geography to make it vague, and has the characters realize that Viriconium is a fictional story, and they can interact with the real world. It’s a bizarre deconstruction of the whole concept of world building, and occasionally frustrating though brilliant.

10. The Confluence Trilogy by Paul McAuley

McAuley is an exceptionally well regarded scifi author (and botanist to boot), and his take on the dying earth genre is just as pitch perfect as everything else he touches. Instead of the end of our planet, instead the Confluence books take place on another world we inhabited after this one, and now that one is dying, too. Much like Dying Earth and Earth Of The New Sun, there’s this incredible sense of age with these books, of living stacked on top of millions of years of heritage, left incomprehensible by lack of knowledge. It’s a world where hundreds of bloodlines, each engineered to be genetically slightly different, vie for dominance having been abandoned by their creators — and the main character is like none of them.

9. The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke

In my mind, Arthur C Clarke was one of the finest writers ever to grace the world of science fiction, and the world was immensely decreased by his death. The City and the Stars is a complete retool of a previous story he wrote called Against the Fall of Night. It’s Earth a billion years in the future, where the main character lives in a city they believe is the only city left on the planet, where stored brains are cycled into new bodies, but the vast majority of the population sleeps, stored in a vast totalitarian computer. Yes, he escapes, and yes, there are other humans, but the book really focuses on the way that people deal with technology, especially the kind that completely changes your world view.

8. Sunfall by CJ Cherryh

Sunfall is a collection of short stories by CJ Cherryh, all of which deal with a far future where the Earth is dying and the sun spitting out radiation that humans just can’t handle. The tales focus on how each of the decrepit city states deals with the poisonous rays on the decaying planet. Each story is about a different city, and about the people therein, after most of humanity has fled to the stars. Paris is completely closed to the outside world, all humans being put in new bodies with all their memories when they die. Roman is populated by decadent aristocrats, trying to entertain themselves as the world crumbles around them.

7. 'Till A’The Seas by H. P. Lovecraft and Robert H. Barlow

Lovecraft and Barlow teamed up for this short story, which is available in its entirety online. The first chunk of the story is rather pedestrian world building, setting the scene for a future where the Earth is much hotter, the seas retreated to nothing, and as humans migrate to the poles, they lose all remnants of civilization. The second part is much more interesting, because it’s the story of the last human alive. After all, eventually there has to be one, right? After the death of his old woman friend, he goes out searching for water and more people, instead meeting his doom in an entirely ignoble manner.

6. Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Not much of the Hyperion Cantos is dying earth, but this is such a good series of books that you should go and read it anyway. Go, go now, I’ll wait — even though it’ll probably take you a few months to get through. Still, you can hardly call yourself a scifi fan not having read it. Anyway, there’s a chunk of the first novel called The Poet's Tale: "Hyperion Cantos" which is where the series gets its name from, and it’s one of the better of the pilgrim’s tales. This section is definitely dying earth, the story of a wealthy young man trying to escape from a planet where mankind accidentally unleashed a black hole, eating away the Earth. It’s his story that connects us on Earth to the extreme weirdness and excellence of the Hyperion universe.

5. Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith

Smith’s Zothique works are to dying earth what Conan is to fantasy, pure swords and sorcery at its finest. A world that has devolved to barbarism, where only one huge continent remains, the smashed up remnant of the current ones, while many have sunk beneath the waves. Set across some 16 short stories that were once collected in a single volume (which is now sadly out of print), the stories were written in the 30s — and it shows to a certain extent. They retain the dark fantasy horror and occasional pitch black humor that they were known for, but they do still have that tinge of racism about them that’s a bit unpalatable to a modern audience. Due to its age, many of these tales are in the public domain and available free online.

4. Dancers at the End of Time by Michael Moorcock

Screw a dying earth, in Dancers it’s at the very end of the universe where entropy threatens everything and the only remaining people are decadent immortal time travelers. Bewildering, chaotic and filled with an ennui we can only dream of, Dancers is Moorcock at his New Wave best, playing with logic and paradox like they’re puppets on a string. And let’s not forget all the sex and incest — this was the 70s after all, and the play between the extreme hedonism of those at the end of time and the repressed views of the Victorian era become a major plot point for the novels. That and the very nature and shape of time and paradox. Moorcock really does love his metaphysics.

3. The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

The whole reason the genre is known as dying earth is due to the work of this one man, Jack Vance who named the genre and the convention, so it should be no surprise that he’s so high on this list. A dark and distant future with a dying sun and blood stained skies, where savage civilizations struggle with the remnants of past peoples beneath them. Magic and science are closely linked, though treated the same by the inhabitants. There are four books that make up the series: two sets of short stories and two novels, which you can pick up in a single volume now. They’re classics, and informed far more of our views of fantasy and scifi than most people realize.

2. Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss is one of the more decorated living scifi authors, and Hothouse was well enough received to win a Hugo in ‘62. It’s a collection of five novella length stories, and it’s pretty far removed from the usual barbarian civilization trope that you tend to find with dying earth stories. It’s still humanity at threat, but under a very different set of circumstances: one where one half of the Earth is stuck facing the sun, where the moon is only held in place by enormous spider webs, where plant life is so powerful that it has destroyed all but five species of animal: enormous wasps, bees, ants, termites, and humans shrunk down to ? their normal size. It’s a decidedly odd take on the setting, but an excellent one.

1. The Book Of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolf’s New Sun books are one of the few scifi novels that I would, without even a second of hesitation, call literature. They’re dense and detailed to a level to rival Joyce or Nabokov, and his linguistic skill dwarfs them. He constructed a language filled with words that at first glance seem constructed, but are based on the obscure and archaic, an evolutionary offshoot of English that is equally plausible. The whole series is written as a diary by someone who expects us to know what he’s talking about, so sees no need to explain it — leaving us to fill in the blanks. It’s the best dying earth story that’s ever been written, and Severian’s quest through a world atop of long dead civilizations, where every mountain is a sculpture of long dead kings, where miners make their money digging up artifacts, and the sun itself is set to die. Paradoxical, confusing, and iceberg-like in the amount left unrevealed, the Book of the New Sun is an absolutely amazing read.

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