What I’m reading: Jack Vance – Emphyrio

This time, a classic from one of my favourite sci-fi authors. I actually read this one before, but that was a long time back, and in German translation, so you could say it’s a partial re-read.

Jack Vance, Emphyrio

EmphyrioEmphyrio is generally considered to be one of Vance’s best works, if not the best. While I personally would reserve that latter honour for the two Dying Earth novels featuring Cugel, Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel the Clever, Emphyrio still remains one of the most enjoyable reads in Vance’s oeuvre, as it avoids the rambling self-indulgence that tends to mar his weaker efforts, but instead is tautly structured and, though still episodic in nature, moves forward at a steady pace that does not flag throughout the novel.

The first half of the novel takes place entirely on the planet of Halma and describes the growing up of its protagonist Ghyl Tarvoke in what seems on first sight a very bizarre and alien society. While it remains bizarre in most of its aspects (like having a religion whose main form of worship appears to be ritualised leaping), the farther one moves into the novel, the more obvious it becomes that in spite of its feudal flair with lords and guilds, Halma’s society is in fact a version of ours, twisted into recognisability.

It’s a very political novel, a critique not so much of the welfare state, but rather on a somewhat more broader scope targets the excrescences of latter day capitalism. Halma is mostly populated by artisans, who sell their works to the bureaucratic Welfare agency; presumably a government-run organisation but who in fact (and quite openly) has supplanted the nominal rulers. Which is not to say the Welfare agency is running things – apart from enforcing a set of apparently arbitrary rules (most notably the one forbidding duplication of any kind), their main function is to appraise the works of the artisans delivered to them, then sell the ones they consider of the most merit to a company in the service of the planets ruling class (called simply lords and ladies), which then sells them offworld; 0.18 percent of the profits going to the ruling class, the rest passed on the artisan.

It seems like a system from which everyone profits; and yet, to those living under its regime (in particular those at the bottom of it), it is stifling to the extreme as they find themselves enclosed by incomprehensible rules on all sides, with severe punishment threatening should they overstep (something called “rehabilitation” which turns out to be a euphemism for lobotomisation); and that there is nobody to blame and not even anything obviously wrong with the systems only aggravates the situation.

After growing up in this world and becoming an artisan himself, after losing his father (who dies as a result of being “rehabilitated” after being caught duplicating historical documents), after leaving his home planet by capturing a space yacht and becoming an interstellar pirate, after being marooned by his fellow-pirates and making it back to civilization… the novel’s hero finds out that it aren’t the lords and ladies of his homeworld who are making money of the artisans’ products, but some intergalactic company that sells them at vast profits. Which insight finally enables Ghyl to achieve his ultimate ideal, the thing he had been striving for above all others: financial indepence.

Unfortunately, Emphyrio loses steam after this, and sort of peters out – it turns out there were some villains behind the whole scam after all, which are then rather summarily dealt with and the novel comes to a rather abrupt end. Still, it has been a fun ride so far, and one doesn’t really read Vance for his plotting skills anyway, and the main appeal of Emphyrio are not the politics – but rather the way Jack Vance takes something mundane and ordinary, twist and turns it, transforms it into something rich and strange and splendidly bizarre. And not to forget the language with which he accomplishes that – Vance is one of the few writers in the science fiction genre that possess their own, unique voice; works of his are immediately recognisable by their language alone, the measured cadences of his periods, the quirky and unexpected, but very often all the more striking epitheta, the weird mixture of the sober and the florid that is the hallmark of Vance’s style… all of this is very much in evidence throughout Emphyrio and makes it a delightful read.


  1. “the novel comes to a rather abrupt end” <– This was the second Vance novel that I read. The first one that I came across was Trullion: Alastor 2262. I was puzzled by the ending of Emphyrio. At the time, I wondered if someone once said to Vance: "I'll publish Emphyrio if you make it a real science fiction story. Just put in some aliens!" I later read the Durdane series and decided that even if the ending of Emphyrio seemed forced, Vance must have decided that off-stage mysterious aliens was a good plot element.

  2. There certainly seem to be an uncommon lot of abrupt endings in Vance’s oeuvre. I would not put down all of them to external reasons like pressure from publishers or deadlines to be met, at least in some cases they seem (to me, at least) to be quite intentional. Emphyrio being admittedly not among those.

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