The Best Dying Earth Books

The Earth is doomed. Doooooomed!

Given that, let’s see what happens.

 

16
Child of the River
by Paul J. McAuley – 1997

Confluence—a long, narrow, artificial world, half fertile river valley, half crater-strewn desert. A world beyond the end of human history, served by countless machines, inhabited by 10,000 bloodlines who worship their absent creators, riven by a vast war against heretics.

This is the home of Yama, found as an infant in a white boat on the world’s Great River, raised by an obscure bureaucrat in an obscure town in the middle of a ruined necropolis, destined to become a clerk—until the discovery of his singular ancestry. For Yama appears to be the last remaining scion of the Builders, closest of all races to the revered architects of Confluence, able to awaken and control the secret machineries of the world.

Pursued by enemies who want to make use of his powers, Yama voyages down the length of the world to search for answers to the mysteries of his origin, and to discover if he is to be the savior of his world, or its nemesis.

“A lusciously scenic quest for the past in an artificial post-human world, resulting in revelations 10 millions years deep.”
—Daily Telegraph

15
Dark is the Sun
by Philip José Farmer – 1979

Fifteen billion years from now, Earth is a dying planet, its skies darkened by the ashes of burned-out galaxies, its molten core long cooled. The sunless planet is nearing the day of final gravitational collapse in the surrounding galaxy. Mutations and evolution have led to a great disparity of life-forms, while civilization has resorted to the primitive.

Young Deyv of the Turtle Tribe knew nothing of his world’s history or its fate. He lived only to track down the wretched Yawtl who had stolen his precious Soul Egg. Joined by other victims of the same thief—the feisty Vana and the plant-man Sloosh—the group sets off across a nightmare landscape of monster-haunted jungle and wetland. Their search leads them ultimately to the jeweled wasteland of the Shemibob, an ageless being from another star who knows Earth’s end is near and holds the only key to escape.

14
The Forge of God
by Greg Bear – 1987

On September 28th, a geologist working in Death Valley finds a mysterious new cinder cone in a very well-mapped area.

On October 1st, the government of Australia announces the discovery of an enormous granite mountain. Like the cinder cone, it wasn’t there six months ago.

Something is happening to Planet Earth, and the truth is too terrifying to consider…

“It is the best end of the world we will see for a long time.”
—New Scientist

13
Zothique
by Clark Ashton Smith – 1970

Millions of years in the future, Zothique is the last inhabited continent on Earth. This book is a collection of stories about those inhabitants, and include necromancers, goat herders, and the like, so be prepared for more fantasy than science fiction.

12
The Einstein Intersection
by Samuel R. Delany – 1967

Winner of the Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of 1967.

The surface story tells of the problems a member of an alien race, Lo Lobey, has assimilating the mythology of Earth, where his kind have settled among the leftover artifacts of humanity. The deeper tale, however, concerns the way those who are “different” must deal with the dominant cultural ideology. The tale follows Lobey’s mythic quest for his lost love, Friza. In luminous and hallucinated language, it explores what new myths might emerge from the detritus of the human world as those who are “different” try to seize history and the day.

11
The Night Land
by William Hope Hodgson – 1912

Set mainly in the far future after the sun has gone out, The Night Land explores a futuristic nightmare world in which the last humans have taken refuge inside an enormous metal pyramid, threatened by unknown monstrous creatures outside.

Hodgson introduces many concepts in what became the genre of Dying Earth fiction. It’s a tale of reincarnation, telepathy, alien monsters, and love. Written in faux-17th century prose as a framing device, The Night Land has been compared to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

“[O]ne of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written”.
—H.P. Lovecraft

10
Nightwings
by Robert Silverberg – 1968

Winner of the Hugo Award

For a thousand years, mankind has lived under the threat of invasion from an alien race. After the oceans rose and the continents were reshaped, people divided into guilds: Musicians, Scribes, Merchants, Clowns, and more. The Watchers wander the earth, scouring the skies for signs of enemies from the stars. But during one Watcher’s journey to the ancient city of Roum with his companion, a Flier named Avluela, a moment of distraction allows the invaders to advance. When the Watcher finally sounds the alarm, it’s too late; the star people are poised to conquer all. And so, with the world in turmoil, the Watcher sets out alone for the Hall of the Rememberers, keepers of the past, where humanity’s last hope for survival might be hidden.

“[An] evocative look at a crumbling Earth of the far future and a human race struggling to survive.”
—George R. R. Martin

9
The City and the Stars
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1956

Men had built cities before, but never such a city as Diaspar; for millennia its protective dome shutout the creeping decay and danger of the world outside. Once, it held powers that ruled the stars. But then, as legend has it, the invaders came, driving humanity into this last refuge. It takes one man, a Unique, to break through Diaspar’s stifling inertia, to smash the legend and discover the true nature of the invaders.

8
Viriconium
by M. John Harrison – 1971

Viriconim is a magnificent city existing on the fringes of the past, and on the brink of destruction.

In Viriconium, the young men whistle to one another all night long as they go about their deadly games. If you wake suddenly, you might hear footsteps running, or an urgent sigh. After a minute or two, the whistles move away in the direction of the Tinmarket or the Margarethestrasse. The next day, some lordling is discovered in the gutter with his throat cut. Who can tell fantasy from reality, magic from illusion, hero from villain, man from monster.

7
The Last Policeman
by Ben H. Winters – 2012

What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?

Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.

In this rare pre-apocalyptic book, the economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.

“Winters’s apocalyptic detective story contains an earth-shattering element of science fiction that lifts it beyond a typical procedural.”
—New York Times Book Review

6
The Dancers at the End of Time
by Michael Moorcock – 1972

Enter a decaying far, far future society, a time when anything and everything is possible, where words like “conscience” and “morality” are meaningless, and where heartfelt love blossoms mysteriously between Mrs. Amelia Underwood, an unwilling time traveler, and Jherek Carnelian, a bemused denizen of the End of Time.

The Dancers at the End of Time, containing the novels An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands, and The End of All Songs, is a satiric homage to the 1890s of Wilde, Beardsley and the fin de siècle decadents.

5
Hothouse
by Brian W. Aldiss – 1974

Millions of years beyond our time, our Earth has long since stopped spinning—and giant flora have taken over the sunlit half of the motionless world. Here humans are among the very few animal species that still exist, struggling to survive against enormous odds, but they have become small and weak, and their numbers have dwindled to almost nothing.

When the aging leader of Gren’s tribe decrees it is time for the old ones to go “Up,” the younger are left to make their own way below. Although the journey will not be an easy one for young Gren, he sets off on an odyssey across a perilous world populated by carnivorous plants and other evolved vegetation. But any knowledge to be gained at the terminator—the forbidding boundary between the day world and the night—might well prove worthless for the boy and the companions he amasses along the way when the expanding sun goes nova and their Earth is no more.

“A tour-de-force guaranteed to startle the most blasé SF buff.”
—Galaxy

4
The Fifth Season
by N.K. Jemisin – 2015

This is the way the world ends… for the last time.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

“[I]ntricate and extraordinary.”
—The New York Times

3
Seveneves
by Neal Stephenson – 2015

A catastrophic event renders the Earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain.

Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown…to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

“Stephenson’s remarkable novel is deceptively complex, a disaster story and transhumanism tale that serves as the delivery mechanism for a series of technical and sociological visions.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

2
The Book of New Sun
by Gene Wolfe – 1980

The Book of New Sun is four books, and Shadow & Claw brings together the first two books of the tetralogy in one volume.

The Shadow of the Torturer is the tale of young Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession: showing mercy toward his victim.

The Claw of the Conciliator continues the saga of Severian, banished from his home, as he undertakes a mythic quest to discover the awesome power of an ancient relic, and learn the truth about his hidden destiny.

“Magic stuff… a masterpiece… the best science fiction I’ve read in years!”
—Ursula K. Le Guin

1
Tales of the Dying Earth
by Jack Vance – 1950

This omnibus volume comprises all four books in the series:

  • The Dying Earth
  • The Eyes of the Overworld
  • Cugel’s Saga
  • Rialto the Marvelous

The stories included in the first book, The Dying Earth introduce dozens of seekers of wisdom and beauty, lovely lost women, wizards of every shade of eccentricity with their runic amulets and spells. We meet the melancholy deodands, who feed on human flesh and the twk-men, who ride dragonflies and trade information for salt. There are monsters and demons. Each being is morally ambiguous: the evil are charming, the good are dangerous.

The Dying Earth and its sequels comprise one of the most powerful fantasy/science-fiction concepts in the history of the genre. They are packed with adventure but also with ideas, and the vision of uncounted human civilizations stacked one atop another like layers in a phyllo pastry thrills even as it induces a sense of awe.”
—Dean Koontz, author of the Odd Thomas novels

6 thoughts on “The Best Dying Earth Books

  1. As soon as the reality of climate change became apparent I stopped being entertained by stories of the end of the earth.

    Reality-based apocalyptic sci-fi is the most disturbing. Try Charlie Huston’s Sleepless and Paolo Bacigalupi’s work.

  2. Your #5, Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse, first appeared in the U.S. as “The Long Afternoon of Earth,” a severely abridged version that passes for a short story. And I prefer the short story. I thought the full novel was interesting, but it became tedious as it droned on. And on. And on. Seriously, though, the abridged booklet is short and sweet, and exciting.

  3. You seldom disappoint, but this list is fantastic. This may well be my favorite sci-fi/fantasy subgenre, and you got it right. I’m glad to see you include The Night Land and Zothique – surely the foundations upon which Vance and Wolfe erected their respective masterpieces. The overlap between the two parent genres puts some people off from enjoying these stories, but I think that it’s exactly the interplay between the two that makes this subgenre work so well. And in the hands of master stylists, such as Vance and Wolfe, they use that overlapping of fantasy and science fiction to its greatest advantage.

  4. Apologies for posting twice, but I thought I’d recommend two books that didn’t make your list: Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man (1971) and Michael Shea’s A Quest for Simbilis (1974).

    Also worth mentioning are two pages of description from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) which are truly evocative of the somber desolation and “alien” landscape of the Earth’s in its last days and of the persistence of life in the face of annihilation. And a portion of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908) imagines not only the death of the Earth, but the universe itself. Pretty heady stuff.

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