Jack Vance’s Emphyrio, published in 1969, is both one of his best books and an example of the limitations of much science-fiction of that era.
The best parts about the book are the vivid fictional world he creates, weaving in apposite satire about the limits of state control and a hopeful vision of the power of the truth triumphing over efforts at deception. This is social satire with a science fiction backdrop.
Emphyrio’s male-dominated world
The limitations come through in the world being dominated by male characters, few of whom have much depth to them but even so are more rounded than the sparse collection of clichéd females – usually unimportant, almost always dull or manipulative.
The plot also relies on a sequence of implausible coincidences and hinges on the conceit of one person seeing the truth that many others missed. One person’s understanding of that truth is – both implausibly yet also optimistically – enough to bring social structures crashing down with only a few simple steps.
In a feature that reinforces science-fiction clichés, the best character development is that of the central character’s time as an awkward and lonely young boy.
If you are willing to put up with those weaknesses – which are a regular feature of SF of this type and time, of course – then the book has much to commend it.
Vance’s skill at picturing strange worlds and different societies is well deployed as elegant writing pulls the reader through a plot that, female clichés aside, is rarely predictable – especially if you avoid reading the blurb on the back cover which, as often with such novels, gives away a twist that occurs deep into the story. Only half-explained concepts and new vocabulary are regularly used as Vance sketches out his imaginary worlds, frequent enough to add a sense of mystery and substance to this universe yet not so obtrusive as to get in the way of understanding or to become annoying.
The ending is rather rushed, with the unlamented brutality of its outcome seeing generations punished for the long distant actions of their forefathers in the style of post-First World War reparations. That Vance, born in 1916 and so growing up during the time when the harshness of those reparations brought fateful consequences, should choose to present such an outcome in so unlamented a way is surprising. But through rushed, the ending does well at rounding off the characters and themes of the book.
A special bonus for people interested in politics: the plot features an election and even arguments over election law, including the legality of election posters.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Wasp by Eric Frank Russell.
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