Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review of Emphyrio by Jack Vance

After establishing himself as a writer of short fiction, Jack Vance began to shift toward novels in the 1960s.  His unique voice rounding into form and imagination given more space (ha!) to create, the decade can be marked as the upswing of his career—particularly given the exclamation point The Tchai (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 the author’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.  Investing long hours in their work, the father and son duo reap little reward, however.  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, punishment, up to and including death, are implemented.  Amiante a quiet, phlegmatic man, what he is found doing after hours one evening shocks young Ghyl.  But is it enough to shake him from the doldrums of Halma?

I will pause just for a moment to write that for those who 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 cover copy, in this case, spoils it.

Part bildungsroman, a significant portion of Emphyrio describes a coming of age.  Vance handling matters with a surprisingly delicate touch, 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 most base of food on the pittance provided by the government, Ghyl’s reserve as an adult has roots the reader can relate to.  

Seemingly unique, Emphyrio has something which I have yet to encounter in another Vance work.  The title of the novel taken from a legend Ghyl reads as a youth, there is a touch of intra-textual play.  Ghyl possessing 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 for that matter, 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 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 books like Cugel the Clever and The Tchai had recently made famous and would go on to color nearly all of the author’s books thereafter, Emphyrio does not display a subtlety of humor in character interaction—arguably the author’s trademark, but remains accomplished.  The singular cultures, the proficient plotting, the worldbuilding—all of the other aspects which make Vance unique, are present.  Typical dialogue, however, is not.  And it is obviously something 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 it’s 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.) 


  1. Thanks, Jesse, for your excellent reviews. I think you are too harsh on Emphyrio, but clearly you love the things about Vance that I do.

  2. I've just read the book, I agree with your review