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The Hair-Carpet Weavers (SF) - Andreas Eschbach *****

Penguin has decided to bring back some 'science fiction classics', in a handsome new series (if rather oddly formatted - they're unusually small books, perhaps to make them fatter, as we're less used to the sensible length books were in the past). While this title is stretching that 'classics' label a tad (the book only dates back to 1995, and this translation is from 2005), The Hair-Carpet Weavers was certainly a great addition to the collection.

Andreas Eschbach builds a fascinatingly weird set up in an interplanetary empire that has lasted tens of thousands of years. On the featured planet, each craftsman spend his entire life weaving a single carpet from the hair of his wives and daughters. The book consists of 18 linked stories, which gradually fill in the big picture of what is, to begin with, a baffling and unlikely society. We start on that single planet, but by the end have take in the whole Empire and how and why it is changing.

The stories are beautifully written - although to begin with the way that each story is centred on a separate character makes the whole thing feel rather episodic, as the different aspects begin to tie together to form a whole new patterns emerge in what is a satisfying (if highly unlikely) conclusion.

There were a couple of issues. Ever since the days of Asimov there has been an awareness that an Empire stretching across vast distances and hundreds of planets would not be sensibly manageable - it seems very doubtful that it would survive as long as it has. And the handling of economics could be better - the decision the hair-carpet maker makes in the first story, dependent on the idea that he can only have one living son, who will get all the money from the father's carpet to start his own, doesn't really make any sense as the older son could simply leave and do something else, as there is clearly a much wider economy on the planet. But these are picky details.

I'm not sure why, but I expected to be underwhelmed by this book - hair-carpet weaving seemed such a silly, knit-your-own-yoghurt idea. But actually The Hair Carpet Weavers is excellent, both in the writing and the clever structuring. If it is not yet strictly a classic, it is certainly a classic in the making.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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