Strange Because it is Foreign
By Cheryl Morgan
There are many reasons why I have made a point of seeking out books from writers whose first language is not English. Here are a couple. Firstly there is rarity. There must be lots of science fiction writers in Germany, most of whom we never hear of. If Andreas Eschbach is the best of them, it is likely heís very good indeed. Second, no matter how hard we try, we tend to fall into culturally determined patterns in our writing. Someone who is writing in German may have a fresh and innovative approach. Certainly, on the basis of The Carpet Makers, this is very much true of Eschbach.
The book starts out conventionally enough with an introduction to a strange society. The city of Yahannochia is home to a community of carpet makers. These craftsmen spend their entire lives weaving just one carpet. It is made entirely from the hair of their wives and daughters (it helps to have several wives with different colored hair). When a carpet is finished, it is sold to a hair-carpet trader. It is then taken to Port City where it is collected by an Imperial ship and taken off to furnish the Emperorís palace. The money paid for the carpet is bequeathed to the carpet makerís son, in order to support him and his family throughout the time he is making his carpet. Because no carpet makes enough money to support more than one carpet maker, excess boy children are killed.
No sooner have we been presented to this rigid and, in many ways, cruel culture than we find that it is under threat. Rumors abound that there has been a rebellion, that the Emperor has been deposed. Yet the traders still come, and the ships still take away the hair-carpets. Can life carry on as it always has?
It soon becomes clear that Eschbach is not planning to tell the story of any individual character. Each new chapter introduces us to someone new, someone who can cast a different light on the society Eschbach has created. And slowly a mystery develops. It turns out that Yahannochia is by no means the only city on the second planet of sun G-101 that is home to hair-carpet makers. Nor is that the only planet on which such activities take place. The Empire, after all, spanned many galaxies. The new Rebel government is perplexed. What was the purpose of all this carpet-making? Certainly none of the carpets ever found their way to the palace. And how are they going to restructure all of these societies that are geared solely to worship of the Emperor and making carpets? The Rebel forces are finding spreading the good news to be hard.
Reactions to the news of the end of the Empire had been wildly divergent ó which provided at least some distraction from the monotony of their task. On some planets, people were happy to be able to discard the feudal drudgery of knotting hair carpets. On others, however, they had been denounced as heretics, insulted, and stoned. They had come across Guild Elders who already knew of the Emperorís death from mysterious sources, but who begged them not to announce it to the populace for fear of losing their status in society. Wasra realized that, in the end, they had no control over what actually happened after they left. On many worlds, centuries might pass before the old ways would really come to an end.
In the end, The Carpet Makers turns out to be a fine example of traditional sociological science fiction, if rather unusually structured. It also does a fine job of conveying the sense of wonder that a universe-spanning Empire should engender. It also occurs to me that the book would have been valuable reading material for the idiots who thought that they could completely re-structure Iraqi society in a year or two. Like so many other front-line military officers, Captain Wasra knows that it is pipe dream.
I understand that Andreas Eschbach has written rather a lot of SF novels. Only one has been translated into English (a fine job by Doryl Jensen). I hope Iíll be able to read some more of his work soon.