Tuesday, 7 January 2014

'Emphyrio' - Jack Vance (Millennium)

It's funny how I'll read the Fantasy Masterworks books with a sense of eager anticipation (wanting to be transported somewhere amazing) but the Science Fiction Masterworks are read with a sense of, 'Masterwork eh? We'll soon see about that...' Years of being told that 'sci-fi was better in our day', and the associated feeling that fantasy never really has been, probably has something to do with that. I kick back against the daftest things sometimes but at least it spurs me into reading books that I wouldn't normally try.
Books like 'Emphyrio' for example. I've never read anything by Jack Vance (yeah, I know...) so finding 'Emphyrio' was a chance to kill two birds with one stone so to speak - fill in a gap in my genre reading (with a fairly quick read, only two hundred and eight pages long) and see if 'Emphyrio' was an SF Masterwork, all at the same time. And you know what? For all its modesty (perhaps because of it) I think it is.

You want some blurb? Go on then, here's some blurb...

Far in the future, the craftsmen of the distant planet Halma create goods which are the wonder of the galaxy. But they know little of this. Their society is harshly regimented, its religion austere and unforgiving, and primitive -- to maintain standards, even the most basic use of automation is punishable by death.
When Amiante, a wood-carver, is executed for processing old documents with a camera, his son Ghyl rebels, and decides to bring down the system. To do so, he must first interpret the story of Emphyrio, an ancient hero of Halman legend.

'Emphyrio' has the big concept that you would expect a Masterwork to have, the usual tale of mankind being enslaved but spun into something else with an examination of galactic economics and a slavery so subtle that people don't even realise it is happening. Where Vance really makes the concept work for him though is that he makes sure it drives the plot instead of being the plot (hence that modest air). There’s no showing off how clever he is here, Vance makes the story the thing and 'Emphyrio' is all about the effects of economic slavery on the people of Halma, Ghyl in particular. Vance has clearly given one hell of a lot of thought to how life might be and how events will play out for Ghyl as they happen. The end result is a tightly plotted tale with a lead in Ghyl that I couldn’t help but root for despite him being a little too stolid to be a truly compelling character. Everything is against Ghyl, up to and including things that he isn’t even aware of, he keeps going though and the questions raised (along with tantalising clues) are such that I had to keep reading.

The pay-off is worth the read but, to be honest, the travelogue element of the tale would have been worth sticking around for anyway (even if the ending hadn’t). From my own (very) limited reading of his work, Vance clearly has a real gift for instilling that sense of the alien in his surroundings as well as making them living, breathing environments for the reader. I’m really looking forward to reading his ‘Tales of the Dying Earth’ if ‘Emphyrio’ is anything to go by. If I read some SF I want to feel like that planets are alien and that’s exactly what I got here.

Look past that the air of modesty and you’ll find that ‘Emphyrio’ is a thought provoking sci-fi tale, making its characters the focus to good effect. The ‘big concept’ is extremely well handled and I think the story itself will stay in my head for a long time to come; that makes it a ‘SF Masterwork’ as far as I’m concerned.


  1. Vance is a fantastic stylist and writer. Try Lyonnesse if you're interested in his fantasy work.

  2. I just finished The Dying Earth and also found Vance to be an amazing stylist. Yes, I'm also quite late to the game, as it were... :)