Emphyrio is another of Jack Vance’s science fiction novels, almost certainly part of his Oikumene/Gaean Reach setting, but that hardly matters as the story is entirely self-contained. Emphyrio was originally published in a hardback edition by Doubleday in 1969. It is explicitly a work of social/political commentary, and I would suggest that its message is even more relevant today than it was in the late 1960s.
Please note that spoilers for the book’s plot follow.
Ghyl Tarvoke is a young man, raised by his father Amiante on the planet Halma. Amiante is an extremely skilled woodcarver who eventually trains Ghyl in this craft. All who dwell on Halma are members of craft guilds (closed shop unions) and entirely dependent on the socially- and politically-stratified state, which controls all aspects of daily life, including the most intimate details, in exchange for the cradle-to-grave welfare society provided. Vance’s critique, of course, is that by becoming infantilized and allowing governmental and social institutions to provide the means of sustenance, one also allows those same institutions to determine the course of one’s existence through increasingly intrusive means. Ghyl and his father become increasingly dissatisfied with the regimented society in which they find themselves trapped. Eventually Amiante is killed and Ghyl falls in with a bad crowd, hijacking a nobleman’s space yacht and traveling to several other worlds, discovering more about Halma’s history and how the present society was formed. I hesitate to reveal the nature of Ghyl’s discoveries, as they are startling and important to the novel’s climax. Suffice it to say, Ghyl takes on the role of the mythical Emphyrio and overturns the oppressive system that governs Halma.
That plot may sound a bit dry when spelled out so baldly, but the tale is well-told and certainly more nuanced than I’ve described above. Ghyl and the other characters are interestingly portrayed, and we certainly see a great deal more depth in Ghyl than in many of Vance’s protagonist (one of his few weaknesses, in my opinion). That weakness, if it exists, is certainly not present in Emphyrio.
I had read this novel years ago but had forgotten how explicit (and important) it’s social and political critique was; this is somewhat unusual for Vance, but well-done, and one of his finest. I highly recommend this science fiction stand-alone novel. It is well-regarded and one of Vance’s best. I give Emphyrio 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers