This book made me recall Ursula K Le Guin’s introduction to Left Hand of Darkness, where she explains science fiction as descriptive, rather than predictive or prescribing. Novelist, knowingly or unknowingly, invents elaborately circumstantial lies for describing certain aspect of our psychological reality, with metaphors. To me, Andrea Eschbach’s writing did just that, the alternative universe in The Carpet Makers was a reflection of the world we think to have left behind, yet latently existing within ourselves.
The novel opens with an archaic tale, reminiscent of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, in premise and narrative. Our introduction to the Intergalactic Empire is through Yannahochia, a planet of Carpet makers where the caste system is more rigid than that in Manusmriti. This planet, G-101/2 in the Gheera galaxy, comprises of traditional carpet weavers who consider it their sacred duty to create carpets using nothing but hairs of their wives and daughters. As far as Yannahochian narrative is concerned, the existence of the Empire or any Empire or even other planets are mere speculations for readers, as much as it is for the fundamentalists and heretics of the planet. Though the initial mystery of carpet business had me hooked, I was more lured into the story to see how this medieval fable would fit into the genre of sci fi. And it got paid off well.
Each chapter in this novel can be considered as a standalone story, and maintains subtle continuity with others in premises and characters. Eschbach‘s simplistic prose wasn’t much lost in translation, I believe; the reproduction might have even enhanced novel’s adapted fable structure. There was an underlying melancholy in each story, characters were in perpetual conflict between faith and duty; yet hope remained the dominant emotion, as author expanded his universe through the ‘merciless maelstrom of time’.
The way the writer portrayed the Carpet Makers and the higher Empire was similar to Bank‘s treatment of Azadians with utopian Culture. The Emperor defined the empire; in his permanence subjects found purpose and structured their lives around in reverence. Even though he ruled over with overseers and levied taxes, his meth like chronic existence – that has already transcended generations from the point of view of mortal vassals – placed a perpetual halo over his head, more like that of Semitic conception of God than that of an Oriental emperor. Also, unlike the Katy Perry loving Kim Jong Un from The Interview, Carpet Makers’ Emperor was serious business, who had actually stopped aging for ages.
Imperial workers, Carpet Makers in particular, represented a closed society based on ‘faith’. The caste system and sense of duty was so deeply riveted in empire’s social consensus that people took pride in being jittery marionettes of a defective system. Author has beautifully captured the generation gap, between the Rebels and fundamentalists who have spent their whole life and that of their forefathers in the fantasy or utter devotion to Empire; and their stubborn reluctance to break out of the system, by the silly yet warranted reason that, they should honour their traditions. And in honouring this false pride, they were willing to ignore the future that gets sacrificed in the altar of past. Every character, regardless of caste, was shown to possess an intrinsic insecurity that called for constant revaluations, to see whether he/she has done things right. This tussle between self-reliance and ‘dharma’, and auxiliary temptation to reason failures to its non-adherence, to the over analyst in this reader, felt like a critique to organized religion, conservatism and postcolonial psychology of 20th century.
Novel’s narrative wasn’t one sided, through changing perspectives and characters, it gave due diligence the emotions attached with the very customs it seemed to ridicule. There were stories that professed free will and importance of individuality, and then there were stories that suggested them being illusions, like Ted Chiang‘s What’s Expected of Us. There were stories about adherence to one’s duty in the society and then there were stories that warranted the need to break away. And then there was this outsider perspective – how everything looked futile when viewed from outside the community, like Shyamalan‘s Village people. Again, as an antithesis, there were stories that dealt with loss of one’s identity and faith, which made rebels’ civilizing mission look like Hegemony attack on Maui-Covenant.
I expected the stories to concatenate towards a science-y closure, like various hair strands forming a single carpet. But I was left with the same expression Old Boy‘s final chapters had left me in: an existential dreadfulness, the kind that seemed to have engulfed Ostvan and Guild on learning the truth. Then it hit me, and it was beautiful.
The Carpet Makers (German original title: Die Haarteppichknüpfer) is a science fiction novel by German writer Andreas Eschbach, originally published in 1995. The first English language edition, released in 2005 by Tor Books, features a foreword by Orson Scott Card.