Completed 7/21/2014, Reviewed 8/3/2014
Ghyl lives on Halma, a planet of artisans and craft workers whose products are treasured galaxy-wide for their hand crafted beauty. The use of any sort of technology in producing these prized works is illegal. Ghyl’s father, Amiante, is a wood carver, who constantly butts his head against the trade unions that run everything in lieu of a powerless puppet government. Amiante instills his son Ghyl with the trade, but also with the myth of Emphyrio, a legendary hero who died speaking the truth and thus changed the world. After Amiante’s death by the trade union powers for multiple uses of modern technology, Ghyl goes on a quest to find the truth behind the legend of Emphyrio. Besides the legend, he discovers the truth about his world, and he himself is confronted with the decision to speaking the truth and risking the inevitable outcome.
It’s obvious the story is an allegory, but for what, I couldn’t pin down. There were times that it seemed to be the evils of communism. Considering the book was written in 1969, it probably is. There is no real government and the trade unions run the lives of its members, even to the point of executing dissenters. At other times, it seemed to be about corporate oligarchs riding on the backs of the poor. Reading it in the context of today, I can see this more than communism theme, with the destruction of democracy and justice by enormous and powerful corporate structures. I think this speaks to the timeless nature of the story. Just about any social injustice can project onto the theme, depending of the current context of the reader. It’s also a messiah story, with Christian myth overtones. Amiante is a woodworker and Ghyl makes a decision to risk his own life to speak the truth and possibly change the world.
Vance uses the concepts of puppets throughout the story. There is a race of genetically engineered creatures called puppets. They act out fairy tales, and in this story, the tale of Emphyrio. Interestingly, when the puppets begin to become self-aware, self-deterministic, and thus troublesome, the puppeteers can easily dispose of them by executing them in the little dramas. Throughout the book, once can easily see how everyone is a puppet of someone, expected to perform their roles without question. Some follow their roles blindly while others, like Ghyl, face the inevitable for their exertion of self will.
I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s a fast-paced story of an oppressed boy searching for truth and justice. Regardless of the theme, it’s a terrific story. Despite the shortness of the novel, the characters are well-drawn, the plot is tight, and Vance’s world is well-built. 4 stars out of 5.