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Emphyrio (SF Masterworks No19)
by Jack Vance
(Orion Millennium, £6.99, 208 pages, paperback; first published 1969, this edition 28 October 1999.)

First of all I, like everyone else, have been thoroughly enjoying the SF Masterworks series (although it is a tiny bit galling seeing books I traipsed endlessly round second hand bookshops trying to find suddenly available for no pain or effort whatsoever!). The series is well chosen and presented, the typeface looks cheap and cheerful, bold and stocky - not unlike I imagine it appearing in its original publication.

I mention these good points mainly because Emphyrio in particular seems to suffer from a similar number of typos to that of its original publication, which is rather quaint sometimes but more often simply annoying. Page 65 sees the word "Biomarc" spelt three different ways and the true spelling is never satisfactorily resolved throughout.

My favourite error was on page 204 where one character cries "Would you destory us all?" To "destory" could and should, I think, become a regular verb meaning to kill or remove a fictional character.

Anyway, yes, the review.

Emphyrio is set on the planet Halma, a world of brilliant artisans producing exquisite goods for the rest of the known universe. Its people live largely in ignorance of their veneration by their fellows, caged as they are by a monstrous system of welfare which while assuring they are fed, clothed and generally taken care of also makes it impossible for them to profit deservedly by their labours. The central character, Ghyl Tarvoke an idealistic woodworker, dreams of escape... etc etc. I say "etc etc" because this summation gives no inkling of the intricate splendour of the universe Jack Vance creates within the bare bones or such a timeworn plot.

It takes time to get your head around the locale and customs of any Vance novel. His far-future worlds really are alien and it's a struggle to understand what is happening at first. The trick is to forge through the first chapter or two regardless until you can begin to piece together where (and even what) you are, then carefully retrace your steps. Rest assured, everything does make sense, but Vance avoids infodumps like the plague (though occasional snippets are given away as footnotes where necessary).

The depiction of an over-attentive, restricting and ultimately self-serving welfare system struck me as a very American invention. That it is overseen by "Lords and Ladies" is an even more emphatically republican statement. Emphyrio isn't otherwise a political novel. The overthrow of the welfare system is of only cursory interest, it is rather the road to truth against tradition and ignorance that is the major theme, but insidious welfare systems doing more harm than good are a peculiarly North American invention.

The writing style is not complicated, certainly the New Wave passed Mr Vance by (Emphyrio was published in 1969) - which is not a criticism. It's lucid and functionally written, often pleasingly understated - I'm thinking of the final page in particular. The names of Halman plants caught my eye a lot since they're often strangely evocative. Fruits like "sad-apples" for instance although entirely unknown blend familiar concepts to give a definite and melancholy image in the mind.

Sometimes I love being a reviewer and reading Emphyrio was one such time, it's a beautiful book.

Purely incidentally I discovered that "Halma", the planet of Emphyrio's setting, is a real word. It's a game played by two or four people using a board of 256 squares with pieces advancing from one corner to the opposite by being moved over others into vacant squares. Is it an obscure metaphor for events in the novel? Who knows!

Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 4 December 1999