Emphyrio, Jack Vance (1969)

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I read Jack Vance’s 1969 novel Emphyrio, a speculative fiction set on another world, where a society of artisans must produce beautiful handcrafted goods in return for a subsistence level stipend from a welfare state operated by overseer lords who live in towers above the city. Duplication and machine-working are punished severely; and one of these memorable punishments can be seen on the cover of the DAW edition that is pictured.

The story concerns the rebellion of an idealistic young woodworker, Ghyl, who wishes to enlighten, escape, and change his society after being inspired by the incomplete tale of a mythical figure in a fragment of old parchment. We see the protagonist’s arc within his city society, which is comprehensively built by Jack Vance. Fortinone’s geography, history and culture are depicted in immersive detail without ponderous passages of info-dumping.

As well as world-building, the book crams a lot of observations and big ideas into its two hundred pages. Broadly speaking, it’s a coming-of-age story and an observation of the way societies are constructed by (objectively silly, but subjectively orthodox) assumptions, and how these are enforced by bureaucracy. By the treatment of its protagonist it also looks at the role of idealism and force of will in changing society.

Emphyrio is less episodic than Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books, with more character study, a protagonist to root for, and memorable supporting characters – notably the father figure – along with picturesque scenes of a well fleshed-out city. The language is also less grandiloquent than his other books. Additionally, the ‘big’ secret (conspiracy) at the heart of the book keeps the pages turning. This book isn’t flawless; the closing chapters of the book feel rushed, and the first couple of chapters have a steep learning curve. But overall, this is an engaging story of youthful rebellion with plenty to think about. 4/5

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