1950 - The Dying Earth
Let’s go back.
In April, President Truman receives NSC 68, a top secret report drafted by the Department of State and Department of Defense. The report advocated for a large expansion in the military budget, increased military aid to United States allies and the development of a hydrogen bomb. South Korea is going to need that military aid.
On June 25, North Korean troops backed by the Soviet Union invade South Korea, catching the United States by surprise. President Truman orders American military troops to aid in the defense of its ally, and the Korean War is now officially underway.
There are initial hopes that the war will end quickly, but then the People’s Republic of China sends in troops to aid North Korea. The Chinese intervention is going to cause the war to drag on for several years, giving everyone plenty of time to commit massacres, and the United States a reason to threaten atomic warfare
Alfred Einstein had already issued a warning that nuclear war could lead to mutual destruction, and he isn't alone in that sentiment. Many European leaders are worried about escalating the conflict. After discussing the issue with the British and French leaders, President Truman clarifies that nuclear weapons will only be used to prevent a major military disaster or to help evacuate UN troops. Meanwhile, US troops get to read Jack Vance’s newly published The Dying Earth.
Who was Jack Vance?
John Holbrook “Jack” Vance (1916-2013) was an American mystery, fantasy and Science Fiction writer. Jack Vance was the pseudonym under which he published most of his published works.
Vance had a very distinguished career, which included: three Hugos, a Nebula and an Edgar award for best first mystery. In 1984, Vance won the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, and in 2001 he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
During World War II, Vance was rejected by the military because of weak eyesight (which would plague him for the rest of his life). Therefore, he memorized an eye chart and joined the Merchant Marine as a seaman, giving him an opportunity to serve his country and write short stories, which he published in various pulp magazines. These included The Dying Earth stories which he published as a single volume in 1950.
What is The Dying Earth?
The Dying Earth is a collection of six fantasy short stories that take place in an undefined distant future in which the sun is dying and has gone red. The earth of this future is populated by many strange plants and creatures, such as the miniature twk-men who ride dragonflies and can be bribed for salt, the corpse-like Gauns that feast on humans, and the giant human-looking oasts which are used for riding. There are also many crumbling civilizations and much human knowledge has been forgotten as a result of the passage of time.
The people who live in this future are aware that the sun is dying, and that it is only a matter of time until it goes black and all life on Earth ends. Therefore, many of them throw aside all their moral inhibitions in an attempt to experience as much as possible before the planet is plunged into infinite night.
Wizards occupy the top of the food chain in this future. They have access to lengthy formulas, of which they can memorize a limited number, in order to perform spells. Each time a wizard casts a spell, they immediately forget it and are forced to relearn it before they can use it again. This magic system is explained in the first story, “Mazirian the Magician”. Mazirian is a wizard who has access to 73 spells, but can only memorize four stronger spells or six lesser ones. After he uses them up, he becomes powerless until he memorizes them again. The same limitation which will later be placed on wizards in the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game.
This isn’t a coincidence, Gary Gygax was strongly influenced by The Dying Earth short stories. In the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, in “Appendix N: Inspirational Reading”, the book is featured as one of the works that influenced the game. Gygax, in an interview, credited the novel as being the inspiration for the D&D magic system, and the names of many of the spells were taken from the stories, such as “The Excellent Prismatic Spray.”. The evil lich Vecna who later became a deity is a tribute to Vance. Vecna is an anagram of Vance.
Should you read this book?
Yes. Absolutely! 1950 was a horrific year for anyone serving in the South Korea and The Dying Earth is the perfect escapist fantasy; exactly what you'd expect from a book that inspired D&D. I have no idea if the soldiers had access to the novel, but I can definitely see the value to anyone forced to spend their time slogging through mud in humid weather.
I was pulled in from the very first page which introduces us to Mazirian the Magician’s garden and a glimpse of the fascinating plants and creatures that exist in this exotic setting. The writing itself is superb, and the stories themselves contain many twists and turns that you will have a hard time seeing coming.
Many of the stories contain hints of future D&D. For me, these hints added a strong sense of nostalgia and homesickness for a game that had not yet been invented at the time the stories were written. These D&D reminders along with everything else (dying sun, magical Earth, superb writing and great adventures), left me with a strong desire for more.
Fortunately, The Dying Earth is only the first book in a series with the same name. Vance revisited the setting in the sixties, and then in the eighties he published a full length novel, and another collection of short stories. There are now officially four books in the series:
The Dying Earth (1950) – Collection of six original short stories.
The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) – Fix-up of six short stories originally published in the The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Cugel’s Saga (1983) – Full-length novel
Rhialto the Marvelous (1984) – Three more stories and one canonical essay
These four volumes have all been collected in Tales of the Dying Earth, which I purchased for my kindle, and am now eagerly looking forward to read. There are also some tributes and authorized sequels, but I have no idea if and when I’ll get around to them. Fortunately for me, it’s going to be a long time until the sun goes out.