Friday, 9 August 2002

Jack Vance: Emphyrio (1969)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 1113

The struggle of one person (at least until recently in science fiction usually a man) against tyranny has been one of the favourite plots in the genre since 1984. Emphyrio is one of the better known novels to use this idea, and it is a rather more subtle tyranny than is usual in this sort of story. The planet Halma is famous for its handmade goods and, to preserve its position, the craftsmen who live there have for generations been forbidden to use any of a long list of technologies. (This is to prevent their goods being sullied by any idea that they might be mass produced.) This whole aspect of their lives is controlled by the guilds, who take a strong and conservative line on technology, even if it is not to be used for "duping". (This part of the background to the story is rather reminiscent of the opera Die Meistersinger.)

Amiante and Ghyl, father and son, produce carved screens, but don't fit in terribly well on Halma. They exhibit an independence of thought, which leads them into a series of clashes with the guild officials in their village. When Ghyl stands as a candidate for village mayor using the name of an ancient hero Emphyrio, Amiante secretly produces election posters using a forbidden mechanical duplication process. As a result, he is arrested and "re-habilitated", a mental treatment which eventually leads to his death.

As a writer, Vance is best known for rich and evocative backgrounds. Halma is such a background (with the stifling effect of the guilds particularly well portrayed), but here it is less important than in most of his novels. The adventures of Ghyl are what Emphyrio is really about. This makes it a particularly accessible introduction to Vance's work, as well as an especially satisfying example of it.

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