Nov 3, 2019

What If?

Star Wars: Wirwans invade Fortinone.
June 1969 issue of Fantastic
This blog post is a 50th aniversary celebration of the science fiction novel Emphyrio by Jack Vance. It was first published in Fantastic magazine, in the June and August issues of 1969.

Mr. If
Before discussing Emphyrio, I must mention that the June issue of Fantastic included a fun short story called "What If" by Isaac Asimov. There is the illustration of Mr. If, to the left, drawn by David Stone. Mr. If has a Viewer, that allows people to View alternate Realities. The Viewer is used to show two lovers that they would still be together as a couple even if they had not accidentally met one day on a street car.

Ghyl Tarvoke
Ghyl Tarvoke
What if alien genetic engineers created artificial humans, infiltrated them into human society and took over a planet? That is the basic plot of Emphyrio. The main character in Emphyrio is Ghyl Tarvoke. There is Ghyl (image to the left) as depicted by Bruce Jones in Fantastic. At the start of the story, Ghyl has had his skull opened so that his brain and memories can be probed.

That opening scene of Emphyrio inspired the beginning of my  story "The Dancing Earth" which I wrote back in 2015. I like to imagine that the stories of Jack Vance reflect actual events in the Asimov Reality. For "The Dancing Earth", I imagined that Vance's character Ghyl was "re-animated" as an Interventionist agent in the Ekcolir Reality.

Chapter 2 of "The Dancing Earth"
When I wrote "The Dancing Earth", my intention was to write it as a fantasy story. However, I was a failure at writing fantasy. My imagined characters, such as Obsidia, always seemed to arrive with a perfectly valid Sci Fi backstory at the ready.

For Emphyrio, Vance imagined a religion (Finukan) in which children were indoctrinated with ritualistic dance steps. For "The Dancing Earth", I tried to depict dance moves as a means to invoke magical spells, but I could not present that fantasy concept with a straight face.

cover by Gino D'Achille
A few pages into Emphyrio, we learn that Ghyl is to be "expelled" from his homeland. He grew up in the city of Ambroy within the land of Fortinone, on the planet Halma. His "expulsion" into Bauredel is the scene that was depicted by Gino D'Achille for DAW books (see the cover to the left). The first few adjacent inches of the land of Bauredel is at the end of a stone courtyard on the border with Fortinone. That stone yard is only a few feet wide, with high walls, and just large enough to hold a machine that efficiently grinds all exiles to pulp, pushing the corpse into Bauredel.

After the introductory scene in which Ghyl is condemned to death by "Lords", the story of his life is told in flashback. Ghyl was raised by his father and Ghyl has no mother.

No duplicating here
Emphyrio is not a happy book. I read it in my late teens and thoroughly disliked its gloomy tone. One amusing "bright spot" is found in the Fantastic magazine version where there is a discussion of the fact that craftsmen such as Ghyl's father cannot use duplicating equipment (see the image to the right on this page). A few pages later (on page 25), the two columns of text in the story are interchanged. Vance's story is full of typos... for example, on page 54, the religiously important "Glyph" of the god Finuka is misprinted as "Blyph". Ug.

Ghyl and Floriel Huzsuis
The history of Fantastic magazine seems to have been rather chaotic, so I guess we need to be satisfied with the fact that it even existed as a publication platform for Emphyrio.

Ghyl and his boyhood friend, Floriel, sneak into the spaceport and are caught looking inside the spaceship of a Lord. Later, through his friendship with Floriel, Ghyl comes in contact with a group of people at the fringe of proper society. At a drunken party, a silly plot is hatched to elect Emphyrio, a legendary figure, as Mayor.

"Many people will be disturbed and distracted". -Schute Cobol

Readers learn that Ghyl's father, Amiante, is a "corespondent" of the Historical Institute on Earth and he has access to duplicating equipment. Amiante works as an artistic carver of wooden screens. Eventually, when Ghyl's name is placed into the running for the position of Mayor, an obsolete elected office, Amiante prints election posters and is punished. Ghyl feels that his father did no wrong: the Ambroy Charter states that candidates for Mayor may use printed materials during their campaign. However, Schute Cobol and other city officials know nothing of the ancient Charter. So ends Part 1.

with Part 2 of Emphyrio
Part 2 of Emphyrio was published in the August issue of Fantastic magazine. In that issue is an editorial by the new Fantastic editor, Ted White. He wrote about the decline of science fiction magazine publishing, mentioning competition with television. While he wrote, I was a 10-year-old who had no idea that science fiction magazines existed... I became intrigued by Star Trek, which was beamed right into my home. White does not mention the horror that authors such as Vance must have felt upon seeing their work so carelessly printed in Fantastic.

interior art
On page 22, when Ghyl again meets the Lady Shanne at a dance (the County Ball), the text of the story is scrambled and the plot becomes nearly indecipherable because of the abysmal type-setting. Ghyl had seen her twice before: once at a puppet show when they were children and once when he and Floriel had walked into the spaceship of a Lord at the spaceport.

The Space Pirate
Ghyl becomes a "pirate" and helps hijack the spaceship of Shanne's father. Eventually he returns to Ambroy, planning to break the trade monopoly for Ambroy hand-crafted goods. He is captured and subjected to the interrogation of the opening scene of the novel. Sadly, the interior art by Bruce Jones (image to the right) does not add much to Vance's novel.

cover art by Nick Bantock
Ghyl manages to escape execution, rob an Ambroy warehouse of priceless goods and escape from Halma. The goods are sold on Earth for a huge cash sum. On Earth, Ghyl visits the Historical Institute and learns the location on the planet Damar where Emphyrio was killed, thousands of years in the past. While visiting Damar (the sister planet of Halma) Ghyl realizes that the Lords of Ambroy are synthetic humanoids, crafted by the Damarans and used as the means to collect the wealth generated by Ambroy's artists (such as Amiante).

The end of the novel becomes much more pleasant than the beginning. After decades of adversity, now everything works out well for Ghyl. He needs only speak the truth of the puppet/puppet master relationship between Damar and Halma and the people of Ambroy are suddenly liberated from hidden tyranny of the Damarans.
Vance's aliens

In his editorial, Ted White described Vance's Emphyrio as science-fantasy. How did Vance account for the ability of the Damarans to make humanoid "puppets"? According to Vance, the alien Damarans need only sample the DNA of a species and then they can manufacture a large number of "copies". At first, (2,000 years before the lifetime of Ghyl) the Damarans manufactured an army of radio-controlled alien warriors (called Wirwans) that attacked Halma and destroyed the human cities such as Ambroy. When humans (the mythical Emphyrio) learned how to counter the Wirwan army, the Damarans then manufactured the Lords and secretly took control of Fortinone. For 2,000 years nobody could figure this out until Ghyl came along.

Star King
I love the idea of aliens who can manufacture new variants of human beings; human "copies" that are so good they can live among real humans without being recognized as being copies. Vance never provides a scientific account of how the Damarans manufactured the Lords of Ambroy. Also, there is no discussion of a scientific means for detecting molecular differences between the "puppets" and real humans. This same deficiency exists in Vance's novel Star King, where the alien Star Kings can live undetected among humans. Vance was never all that concerned with the boundary between science fiction and fantasy, so I am comfortable categorizing Emphyrio as science-fantasy. In my own Exode Saga, I concern myself with the imaginary alien technology that allows aliens to "manufacture" human variants. Vance never bothered with such fine details.

Star Wars
In the 1970s, when I first read Vance's 1964 novel Star King, I was amused to find that one of Vance's characters is named "Spock". By then, the character Spock of Star Trek was well known around the world.

Similarly, Vance's Emphyrio makes reference to "Star Wars" and "Empire Wars". It would be interesting to know if George Lucas read an early edition of Emphyrio. Lucas says that he began writing his Star Wars saga in 1971. For Emphyrio, Vance set the era of the Star Wars about 2,000 years in Ghyl's past... those ancient wars are the stuff of legends for Ghyl.

Starting in 1973, Vance published his Durdane Trilogy, which is set during a "Star War" between parasitical aliens and humans on the frontier of galactic human civilization. Even if Lucas was inspired by the "Star Wars" and galactic empires found in stories by other authors, he went in his own direction that is distinct from Vance's vision of galactic warfare.

image source
I've previously complained about the kinds of aliens included by Vance in his stories. Any reader of Emphyrio or Vance's other stories will come to the conclusion that Vance was a better story teller when he was writing about humans than when writing about his imagined aliens. Vance is writing at his best when mysterious aliens are only part of the background of his imagined exoplanets, not when the aliens are at center stage.

It is not possible to recommend that anyone read Emphyrio as published in Fantastic magazine. The interior artwork is not good and the printing job was a disaster. I also would not encourage anyone who is new to Vance to start with Emphyrio. For someone who wants to begin exploring the stories of Jack Vance, I recommend staring with Trullion.

in the Ekcolir Reality
There is nothing wrong with Emphyrio as a story, but my (negative) feelings about the story were formed during the Cold War when it was all too easy to draw parallels between real world places like East Berlin and East Germany and the fictional city of Ambroy in the land of Fortinone.

When Shanne meets Ghyl at the dance/costume party, she says to him, "Did you know that I can read minds? I like yours." One of my favorite things about many Vance stories is the subtle suggestion that some of the characters have telepathic abilities. I like to imagine that the alien Damarans were experts at technology-assisted telepathy and maybe in the Ekcolir Reality, John Vance wrote a story that expanded on that idea.

at the County Ball
At the County Ball, Ghyl sees Shanne and has a sense of deja-vu, even though it has been 8 years since he last saw her and Shanne's face is covered. Ghyl feels like he was predestined to be Shanne's lover. However, they seem to be forever separated by the fact that Shanne in not a real human, only one of the artificial Lords created by the alien Damarans. They dance and drink wine and then Ghyl take Shanne out of the dance pavilion, along the riverbank to a quiet place where they make love on the grassy shore.

Next: more Sci Fi from 1969... "Feminine Intuition" by Isaac Asimov

visit the Gallery of Book and Magazine Covers

No comments:

Post a Comment