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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 October 2011
The city of Ambroy, on the planet Halma, is a place best described as "medieval Stalinist" with secret police, remote lords in their Eyries, powerful nepotistic guilds, and a welfare and taxation system which seems fine when you think about it, except for the fact that the game is rigged and no one is in fact paid anything like what they worth. On this world, incredible craftsmen produce priceless works of art, unknowing all the while. It's a depressing and bleak place, but that's not the worst of it, as it turns out.

You can argue that Jack Vance doesn't write "science-fiction" but rather social satire that just happens to have aliens and spaceships in it. The story here is really in the telling, and a plot summary is largely a waste of time, and probably misleading as well. Ghyl Tarvoke is our hero: we see his relationship with his father (but there is no maternal relationship at all) and how that shaped him into becoming a thief, pirate, scholar and revolutionary (remember that any plot descriptions are misleading, even if literally true).

Vance here is writing a story about human nature, people and their follies and foibles, as well as about power structures and unquestioning obediance to "how things have always been" (the religion involving "leaping" to some end never made clear, is both superb and confounding). There is action and contemplation in equal measure; one can read this on a few levels and enjoy it on all of them. This is a really accessable starting point for Vance - short and yet complex, with a style unmistakely unique that leads you deeper and deeper into the tale. Go read some of the sample above, and if you like it, you could do a lot worse than buy it.
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on 20 October 2004
A swift story to read, written with that unique vocabulary that is typical of Vance, this is not science fiction in the true sense. It's a fantasy, with planets. That's a good thing, because Vance immerses you in a strange world with a stifling society that works with a strange logic. The central theme of Emphyrio is Truth - the motivation of the protagonist. The prologue is deceitful and clever, instilling the protagonist's fate with a sense of unease. I disagree with other reviewers' criticism of the rushed ending: Vance has a habit of sweeping major events at a fast pace; the ending is satisfying, and will leave you pondering the book for a long time afterwards.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 December 2010
Jack Vance's Emphyrio, published in 1969, is both one of his best books and an example of the limitations of much science-fiction of that era.

The best parts about the book are the vivid fictional world he creates, weaving in apposite satire about the limits of state control and a hopeful vision of the power of the truth triumphing over efforts at deception. This is social satire with a science fiction backdrop.

The limitations come through in the world being dominated by male characters, few of whom have much depth to them but even so are more rounded than the sparse collection of clichéd females - usually unimportant, almost always dull or manipulative.

The plot also relies on a sequence of implausible coincidences and hinges on the conceit of one person seeing the truth that many others missed. One person's understanding of that truth is - both implausibly yet also optimistically - enough to bring social structures crashing down with only a few simple steps.

In a feature that reinforces science-fiction clichés, the best character development is that of the central character's time as an awkward and lonely young boy.

If you are willing to put up with those weaknesses - which are a regular feature of SF of this type and time, of course - then the book has much to commend it.

Vance's skill at picturing strange worlds and different societies is well deployed as elegant writing pulls the reader through a plot that, female clichés aside, is rarely predictable - especially if you avoid reading the blurb on the back cover which, as often with such novels, gives away a twist that occurs deep into the story. Only half-explained concepts and new vocabulary are regularly used as Vance sketches out his imaginary worlds, frequent enough to add a sense of mystery and substance to this universe yet not so obtrusive as to get in the way of understanding or to become annoying.

The ending is rather rushed, with the unlamented brutality of its outcome seeing generations punished for the long distant actions of their forefathers in the style of post-First World War reparations. That Vance, born in 1916 and so growing up during the time when the harshness of those reparations brought fateful consequences, should choose to present such an outcome in so unlamented a way is surprising. But through rushed, the ending does well at rounding off the characters and themes of the book.

A special bonus for people interested in politics: the plot features an election and even arguments over election law, including the legality of election posters.
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on 13 May 2010
What a book! I found this book totally satisfying. Sci-fi with a deep and meaningful undertone. The story is as mad as they come, but written superbly. I read it during a 2 week holiday and I didn't realise how good it was when I was reading it, even though I was gripped. It was only when I read Dune and the Stars My Destination (both V Good)later in the holiday did I realise how good emphryrio was, as that was the one i was thinking about. Totally unique.
A Highly recommended, thought provoking, piece of excellant literature.
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on 10 November 2011
Without wanting to give away anything about the story, I have to say, during some phase of this book, it got to me so much, I had to put down the book for a while... That doesn't happen to me very often.

Of course its well written as all Vance books, and the ending is pretty amazing, its a surprise in more than one way and leaves you thinking "this wasn't fantasy, this was about reality"...
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on 12 November 2010
Jack Vance is my favourite author and I hope to eventually read everything that he has written. I have started my review this way to make my bias clear. I won't give anything away about the story but will merely state that this novel is on a par with such works as Durdane, The Demon Princes, Planet of Adventure and Lyonesse.
If you have read Jack Vance's work before, you don't need to know anything else; if you haven't, this is an excellent place to start.
I'm not just giving this book five stars, I'm giving it five stars compared to the rest of Jack Vance's work.
If you are unfortunate enough to not enjoy it then you probably won't enjoy anything else he has written.
If you do, then you are in the enviable position of being able to read everything else he has written for the first time.
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on 5 June 2001
Definitely one of Vance's best works. It has a decent, dark storyline with a strong central character. I do agree that the ending does feel a little rushed and maybe doesn't do the rest of the book justice but I read this book originally 15 years ago and I can still recall it which indicates its strength.
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on 8 April 2006
In approximately 30 years of reading Sci-Fi this is my number 1 rated book of all time. Jack Vance is simply the greatest author out there. No Vance book will fail to impress, but this is the best. A great book to get started with the wonderful worlds Vance portrays. Recommended to anybody who enjoys great Sci-Fi.
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on 20 December 1999
This is one of the best Vance's. It involves you, grips you, takes you right into the lanscape and minds of the people. Many of his works are allegorical - this one is superb and calls you to sit up and LOOK at what is going on! We all have a choice - to "just follow orders" or to stand up and really be what a human being should be. If you have a heart and soul, this story will truly inspire you.
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on 16 August 2010
"In the chamber at the top of the tower were six individuals: three who chose to call themselves "lords" or sometimes "remedials"; a wretched underling who was their prisoner; and two Garrion. The chamber was dramatic and queer: of irregular dimension, hung with panels of heavy maroon velvet. At one end an embrasure admitted a bar of light: this of a smoky amber quality, as if the pane were clogged with dust - which it was not; in fact the glass was a subtle sort, producing remarkable effects. At the opposite end of the room was a low trapezoidal door of black skeel."

That is the opening paragraph. It's the sort of opening paragraph that perhaps only Vance would write. If that style of writing appeals, then you'll like Jack Vance, particularly this and 'The Dying Earth'.

I like Jack Vance's fantasy a lot - particularly the Dying Earth books. The Lyonesse trilogy is also good and sits on my I'll-read-this-again-one-day list. His SF though is rather less consistent. (To be fair, he has been writing for an awfully long time, and he's pretty prolific.)

Emphyrio is regarded as one of his better SF works, and features in the 'SF Masterworks' series. And I liked it.

The setting is a low-tech world with a strictly controlled economy and society where most of the population work at producing very high quality hand produced items. The hero and his father carve beautiful wooden screens. Automatic production or duplication is strictly forbidden. At the top of the society are the Lords - descendants of the people who invested in rebuilding the planet after some long ago devastation. The hand-produced items become models for mass-produced copies for off-world sale - controlled by the Lords.

Much of Vance's work reveals his interest in sociology by showing us strange 'what-if' societies. However, because many of his stories, both fantasy and SF, involve the hero travelling among many weird and wonderful societies, they aren't usually as fleshed out as this.

I tend to want my SF novels to be somehow compatible with the Traveller RPG. Emphyrio's combination of weird government and low-tech society in a high-tech universe feels very Travelleresque.

I'd like to read more science fiction, but so much of it leaves me cold or (as is increasingly the case with the current crop of British authors) is just too damn long. I don't like anything in a sub-genre ending in "-punk", I do quite like a bit of politics (so long as the author isn't preaching; Emphyrio is a political book, but in a reasonably subtle way), I do like the odd space battle, I find convoluted discussions of weird astrophysics dull. Like I said before, what I really want is SF that seems somehow Travelleresque. Most of my favourite SF novels fit this description (for example, Foundation, Rocannon's World). I will now add Emphyrio to this list.
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