by Jack Vance

Rating: ★★★★

Vance writes a revolutionary hero story, and does it well. The style is unlike his epic mythological sagas in The Dying Earth, much more grounded and realistic, and he spends a significant amount of time on the most important part -- showing you the repressive regime from the inside, for a growing boy, so you can feel the resentment and the hopelessness build.

It is a strange sort of extractive society, and not just because the ruling class are alien synthetics. The Lords take a small 1.18% of all economic output -- a significant sum for a small rentier class, but an astoundingly low tax burden for a society supplied by a pervasive welfare state that covers food, power, travel and all other essentials. Labour is depressed because workers -- almost all guild artisans -- personally see very little in the way of returns for the products they make. The social controls are strict, opportunities are limited, and there is as always a pervasive and pointless religion as distraction. But the real puzzle is why the society seems in some ways so poor -- even the ruling class are not so wealthy as their subjects would expect, and a lot of economic value appears to somehow be going missing. Vance does eventually answer this in a broadly satisfying manner.

There are good values taught in here. In many ways it is a meditation on nonconformity, both in the form of not agreeing with wider society's strictures about who you should be and what you should value, and also in the form of not just falling in with whatever other group of dissenters you might find yourself with -- this last pointing to a common cultishness of those who think themselves a counter-culture. For all the disguises he takes, Truth is Ghyl's guide, in the end, and throughout the plot several times hinges on him insisting others keep their word.

Not one for those looking for very hard sci-fi, but solid, economics-adjacent future world storytelling, with interesting twists and flourishes.