Thursday 30 April 2020

Book review: Emphyrio

Looking for something lightweight and fun after a hard day's work and unable to face more interminable artistic theorising from Time Regained, I picked this up, for its second or third re-read.

It is quasi-typical Vance: a young man growing up in a strange limited society who ends up travelling space. As with ?all? Vance space travel is done rather as aircraft were in his day: airliners for the masses, and private craft for the rich, and no-one inquires too closely into how they work; we play along.

The growing-up and world-exploring is done with typical Vancian colour; it is an enjoyable book.

But to say anything interesting I need to reveal the plot, so read no further if you wish to avoid spoilers.

The idea is that the society is in stasis - this a commonplace trope - in this case, a backwater where "duplication" is forbidden; everyone makes originals; in the case of Our Hero, wood carvings. The best of these are sold off-planet, presumably in exchange for imported items. We note that although set on a planet, it's really set in a city, and somehow that's all of the planet - no interactions with others there. This is traditional - the planet is a small place - but we know that's not true; the best realisation of this is in the wacko "Stars in my pocket like grains of sand" which explicitly says, a planet is a large place. Government is effectively by the Welfare Office, and everyone agrees to the rules, in exchange for a peaceful stable life. There is an official obligatory and amusingly described religion, but it's demands are not onerous; for unclear reasons there is no political life. At the same time, membership of society is not obligatory - noncups are tolerated, but that life is insufficiently attractive for many to take it. So the book could have been an exploration of the relative virtues of a peaceful, traditional way of life against full freedom. And in a way it is; but everything in the book except the denouement says that this peaceful if restricted life is better. As usual with such things, it isn't clear that the society would stay in stasis, resisting outside influences; but if we take it for granted that it is, that does rather imply some goodness to it.

There is a superstratum of "Lords", who live by exacting a 1.18% tax; OH admits this does not seem excessive; the citizens are not obviously being exploited. This "economic puzzle" is not fully explained - the end of the book is tolerably abrupt, it is possible that a fuller ending was intended. The answer is that the tax is indeed not excessive; the harm (to (future) income) comes not from the tax, but from the inability of the economy to grow.

The ending - the "Lords" turn out to be (impossibly realistic) puppets run by strange beings from the moon - doesn't really work. The ideas in there are promising, but mis-handled. The savage reprisals on the Evil Moon Beings are unappealing.

The central theme of the legend of Emphyrio is good; but again, it feels mis-handled, or not well developed.

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