When is the last time you saw Richard Matheson, Fritz Leiber,
Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon,
Harlan Ellison, Poul Anderson or Frank Herbert mentioned in any
list of significant West Coast authors? Even science fiction writers
who 'crossed over' into respectability, such as Philip K. Dick,
Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury rarely get included in reading
lists of dream coast fiction. Yet here was an area in which the
West not only matched the East in impact and acclaim, but
legitimately surpassed it. During the glory days of science
fiction and fantasy, the trends were set out West; meanwhile
Manhattan, Boston and all of Europe needed to play catch-up as
best they could.  

Of these authors, Jack Vance had the
deepest California roots. His grandfather
arrived in California a decade before the
Gold Rush, at a time when San Francisco's
population amounted to only a few hundred
pioneers. After his childhood in San Francisco,
Vance moved with his mother to a ranch near
the confluence of the  Sacramento and San
Joaquin rivers, and he later matriculated at
UC Berkeley. Here he wrote his first science
fiction story for an English class—and was
derided for doing so by the professor. Under
slightly different circumstances, he might have
flourished as one of the bohemian literary figures
of beatnik San Francisco, but he had populist tastes
which led him to pursue opportunities as a scriptwriter for the
entertainment industry—his first big break came via a job at
Twentieth Century Fox—and as an author of genre fiction for
pulp magazines.

Vance may have made his name with the pulps, but his writing
style and knack for close observation of nuanced human
dramas were more aligned with the fiction of the slick, coated
weeklies that published 'serious' authors. He is one of the
anthropologists of science fiction, able to create entire
alternative worlds so plausible and persuasive that readers hardly
need futuristic concepts or advanced technologies to hold their
interest. Even the most mundane matters of everyday life, as
presented in his fiction, captivate us with their resonance and
evocative detail. The master of this style of science fiction was
Frank Herbert, whose
Dune universe set the standard for
meticulous outer space ethnographies, and I am hardly surprised
to learn that Vance and Herbert were very close friends, took joint
family vacations and even shared a houseboat, built with the help
of fellow author Poul Anderson.

These virtues of discernment are demonstrated again and again
in Vance’s masterful 1969 novel
Emphyrio. Most genre writers
introduce heinous crimes or outlandish technologies in their
opening chapters, but Vance takes a different approach. He
lovingly sketches scenes of family life in an artisan-driven
community where the economy is supported by elaborate
handwork—the production of furniture, jewelry and other
everyday items of use and apparel. The story is set on a
distant planet, and in time we are introduced to spaceships
and peculiar alien creatures, but Vance has drawn us deeply
into his narrative long before these take center stage. Much
like the characters who populate
Emphyrio, Vance takes pride
in the craftsmanship and well-wrought details of his trade. This
is the "kernel of Vance’s genius," sci-fi historian Adam Roberts
rightly explains: "his carefully mannered prose slips effortlessly
from familiar to alien, treating both with the same disinterested

In Ambroy on the planet Halma, a youngster named Ghyl
Tarvoke watches on helplessly while his father Amiante gets
into trouble with his guild and the local political authorities.
Amiante is hardly a rabble-rouser, but even his small gestures
of support for a more open, democratic society meet with harsh
reprisals from the entrenched oligarchies that control the
community's wealth and power. Ghyl gets caught up in this
same battle, inspired both by his father’s courage and ancient
legend about a young man named Emphyrio who, hundreds of
years earlier, had led a rebellion against enemies of the people.

This basic plot, as outlined here, will not be unfamiliar to readers
of science fiction. A hardy libertarian streak is now embedded in
sci-fi literature, and seems to crop up irrespective of the authors'
own political leanings —when was the last time you read a science
fiction story that championed the government against the rights
of the individual? Do such genre stories actually exist? Readers of
these tales apparently don’t want to hear about the beneficent
visions of the central planning agencies; instead they get jazzed
about brave individuals who take on the system, the renegades
who refuse to play by the rules and fight for freedom at all costs.

Yet even if you have read this kind of story many times before,
Vance will surprise you with his different spin on the conflict
between individual and state. The world of
Emphyrio is not a
dystopia, but rather a smoothly-functioning bureaucracy in which
most people pursue happy, productive lives. The 'oppressive' tax
imposed by the Lords on the workers is so tiny—a mere 1.18%
of their earnings—that it’s almost a joke to consider it as a
legitimate cause of rebellion. Even the most restrictive law on
the books, a prohibition of mass manufacturing and mass
duplication, can be plausibly justified given the local economy's
dependence on the local artisans’ reputation for unique
handcrafted work. What could be wrong about a society that
takes pride in its homegrown artists and adopts legitimate
measures to protect their jobs?  

In other words, Jack Vance will not give readers the simplistic
good-guys-versus-bad-guys conflict that almost every other
sci-fi writer employed, almost unthinkingly, in most of their
stories. Eventually Vance delivers weapons and violence into
Emphyrio, but even here they are employed in ethically
complex situations. Our hero Ghyl Tarvoke finds, to his dismay,
that occasionally he needs to take the side of his enemies in
order to counter his more ruthless colleagues. And, as in real life,
making the right moral decision sometimes leads to victory and
personal rewards, but just as often can lead to ingratitude, reprisals
and even death.  

Tarvoke’s disreputable friends convince him to join their
scheme of hijacking a spaceship. But he finds, too late, that
they lack his idealism and moral restraint, and ends up
abandoned on a remote planet along the noble family who
had owned the craft. He helps them survive the dangers of
their new environment and guides them back to civilization, but
they still want him arrested for piracy, and he is forced to flee
to avoid punishment. He returns to his home planet, but now in
disguise, and with a plan to disrupt an economic system that,
he believes, exploits the local artisans. But back on Halma, he
is a wanted criminal, and he can only pursue his plans for
liberation and revenge at great personal risk.

Here again, Vance takes one of the most overworked basic plots
—a banished rebel returns home to take on the evil leader—
and infuses it with new life. Here the hero’s revenge requires
no bloodshed, but is exacted through canny manipulation of
bureaucracy and economic institutions. You could hardly imagine
a less promising sphere of conflict for an adventure story, but
Vance is brilliant in his plotting and convincing in his step-by-
step unfolding of Ghyl’s one-man campaign to reconfigure the
society of his native land. Saving the best for last, Vance,
delivers an unexpected plot twist in the final pages, both pushing
the story forward to an unexpected resolution and building on
the symbolic connection with the legend of the hero Emphyrio
that undergirds the entire novel.

Why isn't this stellar novel, or its author better known? I can
only speculate, but I fear that Vance may have been too much
of a perfectionist for genre fiction, taking care in nuances lost to
much of the pulp audience, yet limited by the divided literary
culture of his time that scorned writers who set their stories, no
matter how smartly realized, in outer space. In the current day,
when that ugly Berlin Wall between genre and literary fiction is
finally crumbling (alas, too much of it is still standing), an author
such as Jack Vance would enjoy more freedom to work in the
fertile ground between these two models of narrative fiction. Alas,
he is not around to benefit from this pleasing détente, but we can
still give him his due. A good start might be to revisit our models
of literary history, and put Vance and his cadre of West Coast
genre masters, back into our cultural pantheons and recommended
reading lists.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, a
history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication date: September 17, 2014
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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