Monday, February 27, 2017

Jack Vance's EMPHYRIO

Despite its originally having been penned in 1969, it's really hard not to see Emphyrio as a sort of allegory of our current predicament, you guys, so I'm not even going to try. Hey, it's not like this is the first time. Remember how I read Philip K. Dick's The Penultimate Truth in terms of the 1% versus the 99%? Yeah, like that.

Only more so.

Emphyrio is a coming of age story set in a world not very much like our own except in all of the ways that it is, or could be. A world in which a populace of extremely skilled and worthy artisans are required to craft only one-of-a-kind originals and sell them via their guilds for a pittance, which is pitched to them in the language of a Welfare State but is really just starvation wages the artisans are indoctrinated to believe could become, if managed correctly, Financial Independence, but let's be honest, are just enough to keep them slavishly creating astonishing works of art that middlemen can get rich on. A world in which a really, really silly religion (as in prayers are performed as intricate, acrobatic dance routines that no one ever really masters but everyone feels more or less obligated to keep trying to learn) combined with a Welfare administration that is slavishly following regulations laid down by a government that no longer exists (and thus can never be amended or updated, no matter what changes in the rest of the universe) and ruled over by a parasitic elite that is still profiting from "investments" made centuries ago, investments in basic infrastructure that was destroyed by war and mismanagement on the part of the government that no longer exists and... See where I'm going.

Enter Ghyl, son of an especially talented artisan who is also a bit of a sneaky non-conformist, who enjoys a rare free-range childhood before settling into the family craft, who is raised on legends of an ancient non-conformist named Emphyrio who once exposed lies, spoke truth to power, saw the universe, and then... Well, that part of daddy's ancient manuscripts didn't survive the centuries so, really, who knows how that story ended?

Ghyl's story, then, is mostly a gentle coming-of-age, but also the story of how a myth can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can repeat in ways no one imagined. Ghyl follows in Emphyrio's footsteps as he strives to learn how Emphyrio's story ends and to find out if Emphyrio ever really existed, and winds up changing everything, just like Emphyrio maybe did.

That's all great right there, but this is also Jack Vance, whose Dying Earth novellas are not only gorgeous prose masterpieces in their own right but are also major inspirations for an obsession of mine, yep, Gene Wolfe's Solar Cycle, which means tons of heady ideas, extravagantly beautiful prose, wry and satirical observation, and sensual details of color and aroma and tactile sensation and longing and all of the good stuff that one reads quality escapist literature for.

And it's a book that is (barely) older than I am. Yet it still resonates perfectly. Truly, it is an SF Masterwork, and one I'm kicking myself for only reading now (and that only because my good pal Jonathan Green asked me recently if I've read much Vance and I realized that it's been a LONG time since I read those Dying Earth novellas but I'd bought tons of Vance on the strength of those, only to have them just languishing on my e-readers unread).

Near damned perfection.

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