The Dying Earth sub-genre of sci-fi is a very distinctive story that’s all about preparing for Earth’s demise. Something is going terribly wrong, and unless humanity can find a way to escape to the stars, it’s going to be over for the human race. These types of books might be a little bleak, but personally, I am obsessed with them.
Humans have looked to the stars since we first began on this planet and have wondered what’s out there. Some may doubt the existence of life outside Earth, while others of us dream of what awaits us out in the stars when we finally get there. I am firmly planted in the latter half of people. There is just something so beautifully human about looking up and dreaming of the community that could be waiting for us if we can just figure our stuff out long enough to get up there.
Now, as beautiful as that dream is, sometimes in sci-fi we look to the stars not out of wonder, but out of desperation. Often these books are filled with sentiments like, “We’ve killed this planet, and now it’s time to flee.” Or, “We did all we could, but despite our best efforts the world is crumbling around us.” Both of these narratives can be incredibly compelling, and make for unique stories.
If you’re sitting here reading this, you probably also love to wonder about our universe. Maybe like me, you dream of seeing Earth from orbit or getting to live on a space station someday. Or maybe you want to keep your feet planted firmly on the ground and hope that the stories in these books never come to pass. Either way, it’s fun to stare out at our sky and hope that space is just as weird, wonderful, and terrifying as all these stories say. Though, I personally could do without the bits about the Earth being destroyed. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Octavia Butler writes some of the best Decaying Earth books out there. Parable of the Sower is just one of many in her collection, and my personal favorite. Meant to be the first in a trilogy, this book focuses mainly on societal and environmental collapse on Earth. A new drug is making people addicted to starting fires. Inflation has gone off the charts, meaning poverty is at an all-time high. Our main character Lauren’s home is destroyed, and so she must flee into the world and try to find a safe place to reside. Along the way, she begins to create a new religion she calls Earthseed. She believes that Earth is only the beginning and that humanity is actually destined for the stars. She regularly discusses this idea with those she encounters on her journey and is determined to find a place for her new religion to grow.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a woman who has lost everything is brought in on a project that transmits radio signals to space. One day, there is a response. Much later, a new game is becoming popular. The game is called The Three-Body Problem and puts the player in a virtual world that is in constant eras of destabilization. As a researcher, Wang Mai plays the game, he realizes that this is not just a game, but a real problem sent to humans from the great reaches of space. And suddenly, the stakes become a whole lot higher: for the first time, humanity is sure that we are not alone in the universe. Oh, and did I mention that everything we thought about physics is suddenly wrong? This book has so many moving pieces, but it sets in motion a truly captivating story you will not want to put down.
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
I can’t shut up about this book. It is not looking good for Earth, so a crowd-funded mission begins to explore options for life on other planets. Set to be an 80 year mission, that could prove futile. We follow four members of a crew as they are sent off to explore other planets that could support life. While they sleep through the long journey between each planet, they are subtly altered physically to help them survive in these new environments. As they soar through space, make scientific breakthroughs, and discover the impossible, they know little about what is happening back on Earth. Will the world that sent them out here be ready to accept them back someday? Will Earth even still exist by the time they return?
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
This cautionary tale is about not only how we should treat our own planet, but how humans could impact other planets based on humanity’s tendency to colonize anything new. Earth has run out of trees. With no available timber, workers are sent to a forested planet to harvest the wood and ship it back to Earth. The inhabitants of this planet are peaceful creatures who abhor all forms of violence. But as these strange “yumens,” as they call them, enslave them and strip the planet of its natural resources, they must decide if it is time to give up neutrality and fight against these Earthen invaders.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
This short story collection has some of Ray Bradbury’s very best work. Each of these stories are unique but follow a distinct timeline. Earth is unwell. People come to Mars. Mars becomes a new Earth. Real Earth is in even more trouble. People return to Earth. But what about those who stay behind? Each story in the collection packs a punch and questions humanity’s loyalty to our planet, to each other, and even, at times, to ourselves. It is also unique in that it poses a question we rarely see in Dying Earth sci-fi: if Earth was in dire trouble, would humans really abandon our home?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Not nearly as doom and gloom as other books in this genre, this is an absolute masterpiece in this sub-genre nonetheless. Earth is destroyed to make way for a super highway through space. By pure chance, there is one survivor who is swept off on an adventure he would really rather avoid. Luckily, he is given a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to help him navigate — though nothing could prepare him for a depressed robot, a criminal many-headed president, and poetry so bad it can actually kill you. But that’s just what outer space is like, and you better get used to it.
Tales of The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
This is an absolute classic series in the Dying Earth sub-genre. There are four books in total, and each of them deals with Earth dying and humanity desperately trying to find a home in the stars. Set incredibly far in the future, the sun, as it turns out, is about to go out forever. With no way to fix this, humans look to the stars for a new home — which is easier said than done. Politics, petty feuds, wars, and lack of resources create a nearly impossible barrier to the evacuation of Earth. And yet, the clock is ticking, and the sun’s light is growing fainter and fainter. Each book in the series ramps up the tension, making the whole series a certified page-turner.
Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a YA novel in this list. So often the sub-genre is dominated by books targeted for adults. This book focuses on two teens who find themselves the keepers of humanity’s last desperate hope. The human race has failed completely and utterly. However, lost in the far reaches of space there exists a ship that carries something precious. Even those aboard the ship don’t realize what it is. However, one person, Laura Cruz, knows that in that cargo hold is the key to the survival of the human race. Can she convince the crew carrying it of its significance?
The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei
Published just this July, this work is a stunning work of science fiction that absolutely deserves its spot on this list. Eighty of the world’s smartest, bravest, and strongest citizens are sent into space on the eve of Earth’s collapse. These people are tasked with repopulating the human race on a distant planet. However, halfway through the journey, a bomb detonates, killing some of the crew and sending the ship off course. Asuka is the only surviving witness to the event and is instantly a suspect. Now she must do everything in her power to discover what really happened and prove her innocence before the bomber strikes again…or the survivors turn on each other completely.
I’m not exaggerating when I say there are thousands more books like these out there, but these are a good place to start. You might also be interested in Love After the End edited by Joshua Whitehead, which includes some queer and Two-Spirit Indigenous short stories on this topic! Also, be sure to check out these lists: