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 great 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 precision."
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.