Sean is guest blogging for me today!
I’m stepping onto uncomfortable ground as I write this review.
My wife being the reader and critic of the family, please be prepared for something a little less than her usually well-written review.
The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach
Tor Books, 2005.
Early April I picked up Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers at the local library simply due to the presence of Orson Scott Card’s name on the cover. The cover art (by Rick Berry), though beautiful, was a far second in attracting my eye. Mr. Card, as an author, has impeccable vision. His early stories are wonderful and are frequently cited as canonical in Science Fiction circles. Card’s introduction therefore whets the appetite for something special.
Once I was past Card’s introduction and before I had begun the story proper there was a moment of misgiving. I was afraid that using Card was setting us up for a disappointment. (Celebrity endorsements terrify me.) I was skeptical of reading a translation (how many times have I struggled through a German to English translation to almost miss the point due to the clumsiness of the translation?). I even began to scoff at The Carpet Makers‘ length. What kind of proper Science Fiction can be explored in so few pages? It took Frank Herbert thousands of pages to get us into the setting and culture of Dune. J.R.R. Tolkien required hundreds to focus us on Middle Earth; and then there was still thousands of pages of supporting material for the true geeks that needed to know more. Even Isaac Asimov got lost in his own Foundation/Empire/Robots world. This last criticism weighed heavily as The Carpet Makers‘ dust jacket hints at spans of time, “Since the time of prehistory [….] from father to son from the beginning of time itself.” In this state of trepidation I settled in for what I supposed would be a quick abandoning of a mediocre book.
The first chapter introduces us to a very familiar yet foreign culture, as it is clinging to existence on a desert planet. They manifest as a mixture of Arab and Anasazi. Deeply ingrained hierarchy permeates everything. These are the Carpet Makers. Without exhausting the exploration or in fact giving us real ground to stand, Eschbach sets out a compelling universe. The image of our Carpet Maker Ostvan taking sword-in-hand to dispatch his ungrateful son is haunting and completely sucked me in (17, end of “I: The Carpet Makers”).
At this point (entering “II: The Hair-Carpet Trader”) we are introduced to the main technique of Eschbach’s narrative: he refocuses the eye of the reader, not on the family we have met, but onto the larger community in which they live. Again and again this focus will be readjusted throughout the story. We are invited into vignette after vignette, each tangentially interrelated. Intimate conversation here, galactic orientation there. This particular device removes any one character from our story as important. Well, any character, save one. The Emperor.
Pervasive to the entire story is the presence of the Emperor. He is central to our bizarre Carpet Makers. He is immortal. He is a god. His subjects live in a universe completely devoted to this one man. The myth/history of the Emperor is parsed out to us through the vignettes; as is the history of the Carpet Makers. The two histories intertwined through a history over 80,000 years in the making.
The History of the Carpet Makers becomes a criticism of Autocracy and more specifically Theocracy. Questions of Faith and Doubt are explored as we come to know the world of the Carpet Makers and the insanity of their existence. An insanity they are blissfully unaware of; only occasionally is the truth of their existence glimpsed.
The History of the Emperor and even further that of the Empire quickly styles itself as a new Ecclesiastes. The Emperor stands in as Solomon. We come to understand this man’s mastery of everything. Life has given over everything to this man. Like Solomon before him, the Emperor has tired of it all and looks for what meaning can be found in all the Universe.
Eschbach defty keeps either of these lines of storytelling from becoming overbearing. The story continues to flow despite the many ways we could distract ourselves. As a comparison, I have been rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune series. The two stories have much in common: tens of thousands of years are contained within each, as well as near-deified men that stand outside that timeline. Herbert chooses to explore on a character level these sweeps of time. His books become volumous and frequently digress into “the human drama” of a moment. Eschbach’s vignettes work to connect us to the timeline without beleaguering the point.
The Carpet Makers brings all the disparate vignettes together as an exploration of power and the lengths to which unlimited power is able to reach. Eschbach focuses the story on revenge, but refuses to solely focus there.
In the closing pages we are exposed to how insignificant this one storyline is within the scope of the 80,000 years of the Emperor’s reign. How many other events are buried away in the archive with such casual dismissal?