(Gino D’Achille’s cover for the 1979 edition)
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:
2. Emphyrio (1969)
3. The Dying Earth (1950) (no review)
(Nick Fox’s cover for the 1980 edition)
(Paul Covington’s cover for the 1969 1st edition)
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