The Hair Carpet Weavers starts with the story of just that: a hair-carpet weaver – a man spending his entire life, as his predecessors did, weaving one spectacular carpet from the hair of his wives, as an offering to the Emperor. In a series of short chapters, each from the perspective of a different character, we build up a collective picture of a planet-wide society bound together by the bizarre collective endeavour of the carpet makers . The carpets themselves are sent away on completion on spaceships to the Emperor’s Palace, and their purchasing is paid for by taxes collected by the Empire, in a form of circular economy. Worship of the Emperor, who though not seen as a God, does enjoy eternal life and unlimited power, is complete and heretics are dealt with severely. Society is governed by rigid castes and education is seen as a dangerous enterprise – though in a wicked aside an Imperial Tax Collector observes that cities who kill their teachers generally see taxable revenues fall over the long term.
The frame continually widens, as a spaceship bearing researchers from the Empire itself arrives. We learn that the Emperor himself, for whom weavers toil their entire lives, may not even still be on the throne. It has to be said that some of the novel’s magic is lost once the spaceships, Imperial Guards and space-stations start appearing. Early on, in his scenes set on the weaver’s world, Andreas Eschenbach manages to keep his work above genre pigeonholes.The intoxicating strangeness of the first third of the book gives way to a more conventional genre feel. The early thrill of ‘what is this and where is it going’ is replaced by ‘what happens next’.
What happens next is the working out of the mystery of the hair carpets: where do they go when they leave the planet, and why have they been produced for millenia. The drip drip drip of revelations is expertly handled by Andreas Eschbach, whose debut novel this was in 1995, now translated and reissued in Penguin Science Fiction.
Eschbach is one of Germany’s leading sci-fi writers – and this novel sits squarely in the tradition of European intellectual SF. Like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game it depicts a society rigidly bound by tradition and caste. At its most enigmatic in the early scenes it evokes the mystery of the Strugastsky brothers Roadside Picnic. And in its lack of interest in explaining the hardware that enables people to zip around the galaxy – spaceships are just that, communicators and laser guns used but unexplained – it recalls Stanislaw Lem. Eschbach I am guessing would be happy with these comparisons. But more than any of these heavyweights The Hair Carpet Weavers, set in a lonely outpost of a long-ruined empire, brings to mind The Foundation Trilogy as it progresses towards the final scenes. Several scenes at the heart of the Empire hark back to Asimov’s fallen planet-wide capital city Trantor.
There are few false steps. Eschenbach can’t really bring female characters into the story except as crude stereotypes – the sexy archivist being a particularly egregious example. But overall this is a great read with images that will linger long after the revelations.
Published on 6 August. I was sent a review copy by Netgalley.
Length of Read:Short
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Borges, Calvino, Eco – but also Asimov.
One thing you’ve learned