Book Review: Emphyrio, Jack Vance (1969)

(Gino D’Achille’s cover for the 1979 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

Jack Vance’s Emphyrio (1969) is a story about how a story can create change and heighten our own yearning for escape. Although a pulp coming-of-age adventure at heart, Vance reigns in his baroque descriptive tendencies to spin a narrative that tries (successfully) to say something meaningful about the impact of storytelling.

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary

Ghyl, our youthful hero, lives on Halma, a planet where a handful of lords rebuilt a world, and, as “repayment,” collect a 1% tax on the inhabitants. (As we live in an era with incredible wealth disparity, this “dystopic” tidbit made me giggle for a moment). Additional religious and economic requirements are passed that place the planet in social and political stasis. Children must attend religious meetings where they practice complex rituals that guide and control behavior: “the pattern, of course, is symbolic; nonetheless it provides an infinite range of real relevancies” (66). Welfare agents force artisans to avoid the sin of duplication (all manufacturing is handmade) in order to receive vouchers. Children dream of being financially independent like the lords but end up working in the trades of their parents. The lords remain distant entities who only occasionally mingle with the common folk.

Amiante, Ghyl’s father, does not fit neatly into Halma’s society. He duplicates ancient documents and doesn’t attend or force his son to attend religious indoctrination ceremonies. The legend of the liberator/space pirate Emphyrio flits in and out of the narrative, and propels Ghyl to greater and greater acts of defiance. Due to repeated infractions, Ghyl and his father run afoul of the welfare agents. After a brief imprisonment, Amiante dies… Ghyl tries to find his way in the world—he follows his father’s footsteps and becomes a woodcarver. Soon he gets caught up in his friends’ plans to capture a space yacht and escape for the stars….

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

Emphyrio‘s most compelling theme is the power of storytelling, which operates on two primary levels. On one level, within the narrative itself, the legend of the heroic Emphyrio propels Ghyl into action. Ghyl’s disillusionment starts with Framtree’s Peripatezic Entervationers’ puppet performance of the legend and ends with a sequence of events triggered by his visit to the burial place of historical figure. At various points in the novel, Ghyl takes on the name “Emphyrio” as an act of defiance against authority, and, unsurprisingly, elements of his own adventure after escaping his Halma relate back to the legend. This often complex interplay and pairing between Ghyl and Emphyrio is supposed to be overt and “staged.” Ghyl, watching the puppet show that sets everything in motion, observes that the setting of the play “was the puppet theater itself” (18) in which “one of the puppets, conceiving the outside world to be a place of eternal merriment, escaped the theater and went forth to mingle with a group of children” (18). Ghyl soon will play the part.

On a more general level, Vance makes visible how we, as readers, appreciate Ghyl’s desire to escape the confines of his world. And, perhaps could be inspired by the character’s actions just as he was in the story. Vance shouts from the pages: “STORIES HAVE POWER!” I found that Vance’s choice to make Ghyl’s world not as horrifically stringent or repressive as dystopias are often presented, highlights the emotional yearning we experience to escape our lot in life—a yearning that is more than simply fighting for survival but rather, a desire to escape psychological confines of our own making.

These back and forth dialogues about the nature and power of narrative add depth and power and kept me reading the book.

Vance departs from many of his other novels (often with similar plots and worlds) by implementing a mournful tone that doesn’t lift until the final pages. Also, when the “adventure phase” of Ghyl’s story kicks in, Vance avoids more exotic locals and descriptions to focus on tone and mood.

One of my favorite Vance novels (see note about ratings).


Note on cover: A rare Gino D’Achille cover that conveys wonder (not misshaped heroic characters)…. The machine threatens, we focus on the figure in the foreground, hand against dry earth…. It’s evocative! (if a tad clunky in execution).

Note on ratings: I reviewed six of Vance’s novels early in the history of my site [list here]. My views on his work have changed over the years–as I age, I am less and less interested in straightforward adventure tales like The Blue World (1966) or Big Planet (1952). Hence, browsing my ratings in this particular case is not a good way to gauge my “favorite.” My current top 4:

1. Wyst: Alastor, 1716 (1978)

2. Emphyrio (1969)

3. The Dying Earth (1950) (no review)

4. Marune: Alastor, 933 (1975)

(Nick Fox’s cover for the 1980 edition)

(Wojtek Siudmak’s cover for the 1982 edition)

(Paul Covington’s cover for the 1969 1st edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

29 thoughts on “Book Review: Emphyrio, Jack Vance (1969)

  1. I have recently begun reading books from the 50’s and 60’s. Tom Godwin , Murray Leinster, Andre Norton are all really fun reads. As a teenager in the 80’s I didn’t even care about books. Well that changes over time. That 20 year period is my favorite. You can read a ton of them real quick they are so short.

  2. Hi

    Your discussion of the novel certainly intrigued me. I have Vance’s The Language of Pao waiting to be finished on my desk, b,ut I will tottle over to my shelves and see if I have Emphyrio as well. I have to say I really like the Paul Covington cover with the whole inside outside room decor right down to the cat by the hearth.

    Have you read any of John Kessel’s stories I just finished a couple Inivaders and The Pure Product and his alternate take on certain SF tropes struck me as something you might like.

    Emphyrio sounds like a great Vance to have chosen. Happy reading .

    • Hello Guy, thanks for stopping by. I’ve not read anything by John Kessel — I actually hadn’t even heard of him…. Time to investigate!

      But yes, Emphyrio succeeds not due to the story itself (rather on the simple side in a world which isn’t as fascinating as many of Vance’s I’ve encountered in the past) but what the story is saying about storytelling. I’m pretty sure I would have given up if it weren’t for this element.

  3. Good to be back reading your reviews!
    Reading this review makes me want to revisit Emphyrio. When I read it maybe ten years ago I enjoyed it a lot, particularly because of the reflexive storytelling (which reminds me a little of Cordwainer Smith’s Norstralia, but maybe I’m wrong?). Emphyrio set me off looking for similar Vance. I stumbled upon The Languages of Pao. Pao puts forward an interesting idea regarding the role of language in maintaining a society’s class hierarchy. But Vance didn’t seem to be overly interested in this idea apart from its use as a narrative device. I spose that’s where critics come in.

    • Thank you for the kind words! I hope I can keep it up — I already have another drafted…. I got over my hump by deleting all the incomplete reviews I had and deciding against posting any short reviews of books I’ve waited too long to review.

      Including: Silverberg’s Tower of Glass and A Time of Changes, George Turner’s Beloved Son, Kit Reed’s Magic Time, Huxley’s Ape and Essence, Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), Ballard’s Terminal Beach, Roberts’ Pavane, Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire machines of Doctor Hoffman (this has hung over my shoulders for more than two years — I kept on trying to review it but couldn’t), and Charles Platt’s The City Dwellers, among others…. That’s past me. Moving on! Hah!

      • I’d love to read your reviews of Kit Reed and Angela Carter. I read Carter’s book on the Marquis de Sade recently and found it immensely provocative.

        • Nooooooo….. Putting them aside allowed me to get over my psychological block, my inability to review that has afflicted me for months.

          But yes, Angela Carter’s novel would absolutely appear on my best of the 70s list (if I ever feel like I’ve read enough to put one together). Kit Reed’s novel was a hilarious metafictional hoot that managed some fascinating moments. But, lacked the searing dimension of her wit that characterizes her best short fiction.

      • That’s pretty much exactly what I just did; gave up on the partial drafts and nixed the idea of mini-reviews. It seems that it just takes a bit of writing to get into the most interesting stuff.

    • I own a copy of The Languages of Pao. I might read it. As for Nostralia, that’s a novel I have picked up a few times but couldn’t get past the first few pages… I’ll eventually try again.

      Cordwainer Smith and me don’t agree. As of yet.

      • I recall that Norstralia didn’t hit it for me until after the first chapter. I might add that my dogged persistence with texts is more of a curse than a blessing. I do like Smith’s short fiction though–maybe a better place to start, at least in terms of investment?

        • Returning to Emphyrio, when you reread it I’d love to hear your comments on its odd politics. Vance doesn’t seem to understand what a “welfare state” even is…. People work in this society. They do not get paid (with vouchers) if they do not work. Rather, they cannot duplicate patterns (everything has to be handmade rather than machine made). Vance does not in anyway acknowledge the ramifications of mass production. It’s a weird jumble of politics and positions…. and, as it’s Vance, he doesn’t always make overt connections to his contemporary day.

          • I have to admit, reading some of your other comments elsewhere, I’d rather read Ridley Walker for the first time than Emphyrio again! But yeah, as I recall Vance is fairly politically unsophisticated, or at least someone who despite his propensity for excellent world building, has fairly conformist thoughts about politics. For instance, Wyst. I know you like Wyst, but I just can’t agree with your assessment of it (though it was a while ago yeah?). Even though I enjoyed the first half or so I put it down in the end. The satire on anti-work I just found too heavy handed and dumb in the end.

            • Yeah, I don’t really remember the end of Wyst — even after reading my review….. It’s how I feel about a lot of Vance’s work which never really has the impact which it should.

              But yes, obviously read Widley Walker over Emphyrio! I had to read something to get back in the SF groove. Hence the Vance….

  4. This novel left me thoroughly disappointed. For a book added to SF Masterworks series, I was expecting much more “meat” in the telling of the story. I enjoyed the societal description and relationship with father in first half, but once the adventuring started, the book felt standard pulp.

    Love the first edition cover. Very gothic.

    • Yeah, as I mentioned in the review, the only element that kept me reading were the reflexive storytelling moments which do pull the rating up from Average to Good in my book. Would not include it in a Masterworks list (that said, the Masterworks list itself is very limited in the books it can choose due to copyright).

  5. What’s interesting, if you can collect them is the DAW paperback versions of his sf. The reprinted damn near everything by him in DAW’s matching publications. They also did this with a considerable amount of Simak, Dick, and Moorcock, with all of them looking very nice on a bookshelf. I went through a short period where I tried to read A LOT of Vance, and I know it’s lowbrow to admit it, but I liked his adventure novels best. Maybe it’s because “Big World” was the first novel of his that I read in my pre-teen years. I live in the mundane so I want the type of adventures that I can’t have in a handicapped body. I too loved the Covington cover, it seems to deconstruct any feeling of romanticism that might be inferred by the book.

    • I have this particular Vance novel in a DAW edition — the top image is a scan of my personal copy. But, as I might have said before, I’m not really a collector — I have books to read them not so much for the aesthetic of matching editions, or first editions, or signed copies, etc.

  6. Joachim,
    I had to revisit this novel after your review and agree with you that a coming of age meme is used to frame this story. Ghyl grows from a diffident, aimless child to a naive, idealistic youth who wavers throughout and finally through his persistence, finds the truth he had been seeking, namely the legend of Emphyrio. Consistent with other Vance stories, the hero becomes infatuated with women who always find him wanting, but he is always clever despite his travails.

      • I thought this novel was more or less consistent and enjoyable as many of Vance’s works, so no to your first question. One major difference in Ghyl I failed to note is that he wasn’t driven solely by revenge, when he finally asserts himself, as have been some of Vance’s other protagonists.

        I will be rereading a few other Vance books next year that I haven’t opened since the early 70’s, with the exception of the straight out fantasies I didn’t really care for then and even less now (Dying Earth and Overworld).

  7. Jack Vance is my favorite SF writer. If you can find the ACE Books double with Vance’s award winning short novels, THE DRAGON MASTERS and THE LAST CASTLE, you’ll own two of his best works in one excellent package.

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