Jack Vance
Emphyrio Cover


Sable Aradia

Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge and the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club.

I had a really hard time getting into this book. At first I was ready to dismiss this whole thing as a bunch of right wing propaganda claptrap. Ghyl, our protagonist, is an anti-hero (in the traditional sense of the word, which is to say an ordinary man fighting heroism every step of the way) who becomes a victim of circumstance. His father questions the system in which they are raised, which is a world kept deliberately primitive so that no non-handmade items could be created on their planet, which is famed in the universe for its handmade creations. But little of that wealth trickles down to the citizens, who are described as "welfare recipients" and kept in line through a not-mandatory but mandatory religion and regulations that allow them to be taken for "reconditioning" and deprived of "benefits" if they don't precisely toe the party line or ask too many questions. I thought it was a Cold War age anti-communist propaganda piece, espousing how any one in a socially provided for system will become "lazy." Furthermore, everyone in Ghyl's life is a jerk, from his mostly-disinterested father to his so-called "friends" and the girls he dates. I thought it was a lot of "grim for grim's sake," and I have had enough of that in my fiction and entertainment. "Realistic" means that the "good guys" or the "ordinary guys" do have to win sometime!

But when Ghyl's father, who insists upon reproducing a legend of a mythological figure called Emphyrio, who dares to challenge the system (which he doesn't have the ending to) is "reconditioned" to death, Ghyl undergoes a transformation. At first he is roped along into a scheme with his criminal "friends," and ends up being the fall guy in the situation due to their selfishness and attempts to control him, and their contempt for life. Ghyl attempts to come to the rescue of their victims, lords of the land on a stolen ship (that he and his "friends" stole,) and is summarily sentenced to "banishment" (which is actually an execution).

I realized that Vance wasn't dragging us through the miserable complaints of an anti-hero; he was showing us that the world doesn't want heroes. It doesn't like people who rattle the cage and rock the boat. It represses, suppresses, and oppresses anyone who asks questions, and mostly, even the ones who do question don't give a damn how it affects anyone else, they just don't want it to affect them.

I won't give away the rest of the story, as Ghyl quests to finally find the truth of the legend of Emphyrio and to avenge himself on the lords who murdered his father and tried to murder him. But I will say that having given up on this book would have been a terrible mistake. The ending is provocative and ambiguous. Great stuff!

Why then, the three star rating? Because you really had to slug through a lot of tediousness to get there.

If you're persistent, I highly recommend this book. But if you want quick action that grabs you right away, this is definitely not for you.