The Carpet Makers: An Orson Scott Card Presents Book
by Andreas Eschbach
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0765305933
Date: 01 April, 2005 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In a forgotten corner of the Empire of Man, there's a world where the highest calling one can have is to be a carpet maker, spending your life weaving a single carpet out of the hair of your daughters and wives. The carpets are bought by traders who take them to the planet's spaceport where Imperial freighters take them away so that they may glorify the Emperor's palace. In each carpet maker's life there will be one carpet, and to him given one son and no more. It's an old society, where this unforgiving way of life has been going on for thousands of years, and it's mainspring is starting to wind down as new ideas leak back from the spaceport and the central importance of both carpets and Emperor fall into heretical question. Some even say that the Emperor is dead, or abdicated.
This is the first translation into English of Andreas Eschbach's very notable first novel, which spins off from an absolutely stunning short story. Though I can't speak for the original German version, the translation, the English version reads beautifully, with just enough cultural dissonance coming through to point up the books origins. Orson Scott Card presents the book, having been introduced to the author while in Europe, and while that should help garner Eschbach some well deserved attention, the book may ultimately founder on a weakness of internal structure. The opening short story is a hard act to follow, and the author does so with a string of short pieces more patched than woven together, revealing a whole more quilt than tapestry.
The looming questions at the beginning of the book are two; Why does the Emperor want hair rugs in the first place, and why doesn't anyone in the palace seem to know about these rugs, the planetary output of which would cover more than the vast floors of that building? It turns out that the Emperor is indeed dead, or abdicated, and the rebel forces that have taken over from the old regime are just beginning to discover the extent of the hair weaving plot. Not just one planet, but many are weaving the carpets, and they're all going somewhere...but the answerers to where and why are either lost or buried so deeply in the vast store house of the Emperor's library as to be irretrievable.
The viewpoint shifts around a cast of players that the author is none to attached to, as the story seems to jump from patch to patch with only occasional order. By the end a greater order is revealed, but it's more petty than you'd expect, which may well be the intent of the author. That the effort of so many lives is without cosmic significance may be more resonant with Germans than American or British authors, and I found myself more than a bit let down at the end.
That's a pity, since The Carpet Makers leaves no doubt in my mind that the author is a gifted writer, and I certainly hope we see more from him. The transition from excellent short story to excellent novel is always exceedingly difficult, and he nearly makes it, but only nearly. It's hard not to compare Eschbach with Ursula LeGuin for the depth of the realization of his culture of weavers, but unless the message he hopes to bring out is one of nihilism, the richness of his writing needs a bolder pattern to illuminate.