Visions of Paradise

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Jack Vance is one of the most idiosyncratic science fiction writers, perhaps along with Cordwainer Smith, whose writing is totally unlike any other writer (excluding the writers influenced by him who deliberately mimic his style). He excels at building colorful worlds filled with offbeat characters, and his names–both people and places–are always wonderful.

His plots tend to be simple, either mysteries or routine adventures, but you do not read Vance fiction for the plots, but rather to explore his wondrous worlds and spend time with the fascinating people. Occasionally though, a Vance story does have a plot worthy of its setting, or even a thought-provoking theme. The Domains of Koryphon (aka The Grey Prince) was such a novel. And so is one of his finest novels Emphyrio.

The setting is a world in which every citizen is provided welfare vouchers for all the work they do, although they are watched over closely by the Welfare Agency to make certain they are working to their capacity, as well as not doing any unacceptable behavior. The world has a caste system in which lords and ladies are given 1.18% of all the vouchers earned by the workers for their own use, which provides their wealthy lifestyles. However, the lords and ladies have no authority, serving as ceremonial nobles as a reward for their service centuries ago when they rescued the world from devastating wars.

The novel centers around Glyph and his father Amiante, wood-carvers and, in the case of Amiante, a very good one. But he is not particularly motivated to work harder than necessary, thus earning fewer vouchers than he might, as well as antagonizing the local representative of the Welfare Agency, most importantly by his secretly making illicit duplicates (which is forbidden worldwide for any items as simple as printed text, since most of the planet’s trading profit comes from original crafts). The novel’s main concern is Glyph’s childhood and coming-of-age, as he first notices his father’s dissatisfaction with their society, and eventually comes to share it as well. The actions which Glyph takes as a reaction to his dissatisfaction are both drastic and life-changing.

Were I to rank all of Vance’s novels, Emphyrio would sit near the top for its successful combination of the color, originality and wondrousness of Vance's best work, as well as having one of his most interesting and thoughtful plots. I recommend this book highly.


  • You are right about Vance, and Emphyrio was a good novel.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, At 6:25 PM  

  • I agree with your Vance comments. I have been a fan of his work since I first read the "Demon Princes" series. This is another one on my "to be read" shelf.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 8:28 PM  

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