Monday, December 03, 2007

Book review: EMPHYRIO

When some folks say “space opera,” they use the term scornfully. I don’t. My first brush with sci-fi as a kid was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series, then E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen stuff and things by the great Leigh Brackett. My tastes grew more sophisticated as I grew older, but I still adore good space opera. (What, after all, is Babylon 5, or Battlestar Galactica, or Star Wars? And our beloved Firefly is an intriguing combination of space and horse opera, isn’t it?) So when I call Jack Vance’s 1969 novel Emphyrio “space opera,” I mean it as a good thing.

Remarkably, I haven’t read much Vance until recently, and then at the urging of one of this blog’s regular readers. I read one of Vance’s Demon Prince novels a few months ago, but TheSilentCritic recommended Emphyrio specifically, so when I found a copy at the local used book shoppe, I grabbed it. Very good stuff. Fun stuff. It’s filled with star-hopping, space pirates, and high adventure. And plenty of swash is buckled, so to speak.

But Emphyrio is also one heck of a good freedom novel. And it’s one I’ve never before heard discussed in libertarian geek circles.

The first half of the book details the “coming of age” of Ghyl Tarvoke on the planet Halma, which is “ruled” by elite, arrogant Lords and a mercantilist welfare system. Vance’s depiction of a “benevolent” state and its stifling class system is, I think, well done and convincing. In the book’s second half, the “pirate” Ghyl searches among the planets for the key to his homeworld’s despotic origins and to the secrets behind the legendary hero Emphyrio. The jacket copy on my edition of Emphyrio asks, “Was he the legendary liberator…or tomorrow’s space pirate?” The answer is, satisfyingly enough, both.

Now almost four decades old, Emphyrio ranks among the best freedom novels I’ve read. I’m glad to have finally caught up with it.

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At 5:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack Vance is my favorite author.

In general I wouldn't call his writing libertarian. He's inclined toward individualism, but like many Unitedstatesians seems to feel government is necessary to make people behave. Emphyrio, though, really is what you call it: a great freedom novel.

A computer-generated Emphyrio, by the way, is a character in John C. Wright's flawed but dazzling trilogy, The Golden Age.

At 10:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Jack Vance's political views are something of an enigma. He comes off to me as a conservative who sees the truth and can illustrate it with resounding clarity but hesitates to accept it in some cases.

I have heard that he detests H.L. Mencken. What are you going to do? I forgive him and read him anyway.

At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the book when I was about 12, when it was serialized in the now-defunct Amazing/Fantastic. Too bad I lost all my old magazines.

At 7:32 PM, Blogger Anders Monsen said...

Like Victor Milan, Jack Vance is my favorite writer. If you like the individualistic elements of Emphyrio, you might want to consider reading the following novels: Blue World, Wyst: Alastor 1716, Big Planet, and Araminta Station. Of course, I'd read any Vance book, regardless of overt or implied political content. I've recommended several of these novels, especially Emphyrio, for the LFS Hall of Fame award, but so far to no avail.


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