Emphyrio: One of Vance’s more ideological pieces

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsEmphyrio by Jack Vance science fiction book reviewsEmphyrio by Jack Vance

After establishing himself as a writer of short fiction, Jack Vance began to shift toward novels in the 1960s. Given more space (ha!) to create, his unique voice rounded into form and imagination, and the decade can be marked as the upswing of his career — particularly given the exclamation point the TSCHAI: PLANET OF ADVENTURE series places on the end. Tucked neatly in the middle of the publishing of these four novels, however, is a stand-alone novel: Emphyrio. Interestingly, the title is not taken from the name of a locale or culture, as is usual with Vance, but from a legend innate to the tale. Singling it out further, the book is one of Vance’s more ideological pieces; there are ominous elements of socialism and the value of historical knowledge is expanded. The capricious storytelling, vivid setting, and resourceful hero remain classic Vance, however.

Emphyrio is the story of Ghyl Tarvoke. Son of a master artisan, Ghyl grows up on the planet Halma learning to carve elaborate wooden screens from his father, Amiante. Father and son invest long hours in their work, but reap little reward. With business and production on Halma highly regulated, the two receive only a stipend for their skilled creations, while the lords of the city, aristocrats who live in towers, rake in the profits from outlying planets for the handiwork. Worse yet, no manner of duplication — mechanical or otherwise — is allowed on Halma. Each wooden screen, silk blouse, item of metalwork, book, etc., is hand crafted, and if methods of duplication are discovered, punishments up to and including death are implemented. Amiante is a quiet, phlegmatic man, and young Ghyl is shocked at what he finds his father doing after hours one evening. But is it enough to shake him from the doldrums of Halma?

I will pause just for a moment for a warning: if you pick up the SF Masterworks version of Emphyrio (shown above), do not read the back cover: a major event that occurs halfway through the story is openly revealed. One of the reasons to read Vance is the salient, unpredictable movement of story, which Emphyrio has, but which is spoiled by the cover copy.

A significant portion of Emphyrio describes a coming of age. Vance handles matters with a surprisingly delicate touch, though not all is rainbows and butterflies in Ghyl’s youth. With a father seemingly indifferent to the injustices occurring on Halma, friends that constantly get into trouble with the law, dreams of traveling in space limited by poverty, and eating the basest of food on the pittance provided by the government, Ghyl’s reserve as an adult has roots the reader can relate to.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSeemingly unique, Emphyrio has something which I have yet to encounter in another Vance work. The title of the novel is taken from a legend Ghyl reads as a youth, and there is a touch of intra-textual play. Ghyl possesses only the first half of the story of Emphyrio; the rest is hearsay. He spends a fair portion of the book seeking out the truths, and the untruths, of the second half. What results may be one of Vance’s weakest denouements, but it certainly distinguishes itself by being one of the most ideological. The typical elements of planetary adventure, mystery, and revenge still have a place in the narrative, just this time around a place is allowed for the subjectivity/objectivity of legend, both in the story and in its underlying concepts. This contrived sub-layer complementing the surface plot is something I’ve yet to encounter in Vance’s other works.

Regarding style, Emphyrio is likewise rather unique in Vance’s oeuvre. Missing almost the entirety of the baroque dialogue that the DYING EARTH and TSCHAI books had recently made famous and would go on to color nearly all of the author’s books thereafter, Emphyrio does not display the same subtlety of humor in character interaction, which is arguably Vance’s trademark. The singular cultures, the proficient plotting, the worldbuilding — all of the other aspects which make Vance unique — are present. His typical dialogue, however, is not. And it is obviously intentional. I’m only guessing, but it would seem Vance was trying to emphasize the severity of Halma’s strict work practices. A bleak mood permeates their society as a result, and in turn Ghyl’s life.

In the end, Emphyrio is standard, quality Vance that should be read by any of his fans. Whether it should be a starting point for the author, however, is another question. Given the aforementioned singularities, it is not as representative as many of his other works. The sublimely humorous dialogue is toned down to the point of being almost non-existent, and the ending, with its ideological aims, is not developed in a fashion complementing the story at hand: one is sacrificed for the other. The intentions are good, I’m just not convinced the results match earlier scenes. That being said, it’s still well worth it. Vance is Vance, and you either love him or hate him. (For those curious, Emphyrio most closely resembles Maske: Thaery and Night Lamp in Vance’s oeuvre.)


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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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One comment

  1. Thanks for this; Emphyrio is on my list.

    A little generational coincidence; as you probably know, Jack Vance was influenced by Jeffrey Farnol, a British historical romance author of about a hundred years ago and modelled his lifestyle with boats, etc, on Jack London.

    Jeffrey Farnol is one of my father’s favourite writers and Jack London is one of my favourites, so we should expect my son to carry forward Jack Vance fandom in the future.

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