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Jack Vance
Orion Millennium Books, 208 pages

Chris Moore
Jack Vance
John Holbrook Vance was born in 1916. Over a career spanning many decades, he has garnered many honours. They include the Edgar Award in 1960, the Hugo Award in 1963 and 1967, the Nebula Award in 1966, the Jupiter Award in 1975, the Achievement Award in 1984, the GilgamXs Award in 1988, the World Fantasy Award in 1990, and the Grand Master Award in 1997. He has used many pseudonyms including Alan Wade, Peter Held, John Holbrook and John van See. Jack Vance's original manuscripts for several of his books are kept at Boston University's main library in the manuscripts department.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Ports of Call
Jack Vance Tribute Site
Jack Vance Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

The UK imprint Millennium is reprinting a number of classic SF novels as SF Masterworks. This is an effort for which they deserve much praise. I have at hand number 19 of this series of reprints, a 1969 novel by Jack Vance, Emphyrio.

This is one of Vance's better novels, and in many ways a good introduction to this author. On display are many of the hallmarks of his mature style: his elegant writing, his wonderful depiction of local colour, his unusual social systems. Emphyrio lacks only the humour that is so often present in Vance: this is one of his more melancholy books. It's also better plotted than many of his novels, and it's a stand-alone.

The story concerns a young man in the city of Ambroy (on the planet Halma) named Ghyl Tarvoke. Ghyl is the son of Amiante Tarvoke, a rather unconventional inhabitant of Ambroy. Amiante is a master carver of wooden screens, one of the handmade products that Ambroy exports to the rest of the Galaxy, but he is rather solitary, and does not produce especially many screens, and does not participate in the religious rituals of Ambroy, which involve intricate leaping (saltation).

Ghyl's childhood is wonderfully presented. It's rather lonely, but happy, as Amiante's rearing of Ghyl bids fair to make him as unconventional as his father. Ghyl explores much of his city, which is ruled by a very few "Lords" or "Remedials," who control the utilities and services of the city, and provide a guaranteed minimum support lifestyle to the common people who co-operate, in exchange for control of the market for Ambroy's artwork. Various regulations are enforced, most notably an absolute rule against duplication of any kind, ostensibly to ensure the maintenance of Ambroy's reputation for completely original handmade art.

Ghyl makes a few friends, some who end up "noncups," or people living outside the welfare system. He also learns eventually that his father's unconventionality extends to illegal duplication: his father has a collection of historical documents, which he duplicates. He also teaches Ghyl the writing systems used in these old documents. One old document is an unfinished version of the legend of Emphyrio, a hero of the past on the planet Aume who helped humans throw off the domination of aliens from the mood Sigil. As Ghyl grows older, he remains isolated from most of his fellows, an isolation only enhanced by his brief affair with a Lord's daughter, and further exacerbated by his father's eventual punishment and death for his duplicating.

Finally Ghyl is pushed to a desperate act, kidnapping a Lord's spaceship. This leads to a journey offworld, where he eventually learns much about the true story of Emphyrio and the true nature of his own planet, of the Lords who rule it and the mysterious puppet makers of the moon Damar. The resolution is satisfying if a bit odd, with a nice twist. However, although the plot of this novel is satisfactory, the real pleasures, as with all Vance, lie elsewhere.

This book features, for one thing, a very satisfying depiction of an odd, lonely but happy, childhood. For a second thing, there is the culture of Ambroy, which is perhaps not so odd as some of Vance's social structures, but still fascinating, with its welfare system, prohibition of duplication, mysterious Lords, and unusual and mordantly amusing punishments. Thirdly there is Vance's always elegant prose, with his glorious touch for names of people (Amiante Tarvoke), alien races (the Garrion), and places (Daillie); and his knack for coining words (noncups, skeel, Remedials). And finally, his plots, even when unsatisfactorily resolved, often seem to be following conventional paths before suddenly taking unusual but believable turns. Vance's main weakness, besides his occasional trouble with endings, is his cavalier approach towards scientific realism. In some moods this bothers me, but I think it's best with Vance simply to ignore this. So what if his spaceships seem but cars that can be driven at FTL? That's not the point with Vance.

I might make a minor quibble about the production values of this book. It appears to use the plates from the 1979 DAW edition, slightly enlarged, and complete with typos. This is not as attractive as it might be. But I'm only quibbling: if the money thereby saved makes this project feasible, I'm happy. Besides, there is a nice new cover painting.

Copyright © 2000 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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