Follow us to a little village on a faraway planet somewhere among the distant stars. In this village, the profession of hair-carpet weavers is part of an honoured tradition and an essential link in the local economy. Carpet weavers, men always, dedicate their entire lives to weaving a carpet made of the hair of their wives and daughters, and train their single son (if a second son is born, it’s death for him) in the art of weaving. Once a year, a trader travels past in a huge caravan to buy the carpets of ageing weavers for the glory of the godlike Emperor who rules all their lives, and pays such amounts of gold for the carpets that the son can live on it for his whole life while he works on his own carpet. So the cycle goes from generation to generation, but why? Does the Emperor really need so many hair carpets? Where do the carpets end up?
Andreas Eschbach is quite a successful German science fiction writer. The Hair-Carpet Weavers (1995) was his first published novel (published as Die Haarteppichknüpfer), won a couple of European SF awards, and sadly is one of only a few of his books that ever got translated to English. What doesn’t help is that the first English translation received another title: The Carpet Makers, in 2005, but The Hair-Carpet Weavers is closer to the original German and gives a better impression of the weird, unorthodox story inside.
And what a story it is… it has an unusual structure that I’ve never seen in any other book but it works very well. It keeps zooming out with every chapter. So, we start the story with the carpet weavers in the village, then the next chapter is about the trader, the next one about a teacher, the next about a peddler… eventually we move off-world and the novel becomes space opera where before it felt like fantasy. With every chapter, we move further away, the world expands, Eschbach adds more worldbuilding, and in this stepwise way we learn more and more details. Hints of rebellion against the Emperor slowly come into focus. And we follow the economic linkages that have to do with these hair carpets.
And so, while each chapter has a different protagonist, the deeper mysteries of the universe that Eschbach is building for the reader keep pulling you onwards. And each chapter works like a little self-contained short story with satisfying emotional set-ups and pay-offs, and builds on what has come before. It doesn’t get old. In some chapters, we meet the protagonists from previous chapters, but from a new point-of-view. Eschbach builds out his universe with great depth, in language that is descriptive but pleasant to read and immediately drags you inside this world and its lifelike, deep-feeling characters.
The unfamiliar social system and the traditions Eschbach invents bring to mind the work of Jack Vance, who specialised in conjuring up the strangest, most fascinating societies. But where Vance ultimately used his constructed societies as backdrops for variations on coming-of-age stories and revenge stories, Eschbach really wants to shine a light on the economic system itself that he sets up. He explores how it can be tied to tradition and religion, how much it is part of the fabric of society and how people take meaning from it. How much the meaning of a work of a lifetime is dictated by the culture you are part of.
In the second half of the book, the stories lost some of their interconnectedness and my mind started wandering, thinking about the fates of the characters from earlier parts of the novel. The final denouement that resolves much of the mystery isn’t all that interesting, and feels disconnected from the emotions of the characters. But in a way that is also the point. This narrative is very much about perspectives. We all work, labor, day in and day out, for our own lives and for the meaning that we attach to that. What that labor truly adds to the world is often not visible from our own limited perspective. That’s the best thing about The Hair-Carpet Weavers: it offers a lot of food for thought.