WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED HERE?
Andreas Eschbach’s ‘The Carpet Makers’ impressed the hell out of me. I’ve been going around for a few years now, recommending it to all and sundry. I was wildly excited that he had a new book coming out in English, and bought it the very first time I saw it up for sale. I even recommended it to others before reading it myself. I hereby rescind that recommendation.
I would never in a thousand years have guessed that this book was by the same author. There’s no similarity. It’s definitely not an issue of translation, either – it’s a matter of content.
I feel like the book aims at being ‘a thinking man’s thriller’ – but it fails both at introducing new and fascinating philosophical concepts and at being thrilling.
Hiroshi is the half-Japanese son of a laundress working at the French embassy in Tokyo. He’s a precocious robotics genius whose skills lead him to befriending the ambassador’s young daughter, Charlotte. His situation leads to an early awareness of class differences and wealth disparity, which instills in him the ambition to someday eliminate poverty from the world. And he has a plan as to how to achieve this goal! (Don’t hold your breath though – the author is coy about what this idea is for over half of the book, and when it’s finally revealed, it’s quite underwhelming and unoriginal.)
After a slow and didactic exposition of these younger years, deus ex machina in the form of a previously-absent billionaire father allows Hiroshi to move to the United States, experience culture shock, and attend MIT.
Then, in a third section, an unlikely concatenation of coincidences causes Charlotte to be present at the discovery of what seems to be super-powerful alien technology – technology that Just Happens to look just like what Hiroshi, now an eccentric recluse, has been working on.
The first two parts of the book are slow-moving personal drama, mixed with occasional didactic insertions of Liberal Thoughts. The third part comes off more as an attempt at a Michael-Crichton-style thriller. In striking contrast to the didactic insertions, the actual subtext of the book is very, very conservative and offensively sexist. Charlotte, a main character, seemingly exists only to be Hiroshi’s Muse (explicitly stated). Without him, she wanders around lost and accomplishing nothing, looking enviously at the women around her who have become personally fulfilled by bearing children, doing housework (yes, really), and caring for their men.
The book features a number of different geographical and cultural locations. None of them are portrayed convincingly. I find myself doubting whether the author has ever visited Japan or the United States, let alone the Arctic. The Japanese and Louisianan settings were just nonexistent and neutral. The Boston setting – especially to someone who’s actually been on both the Harvard and MIT campuses plenty – is just flat-out wrong. I feel like the author did his research by watching some 1980s frat-house comedy movie. He also has the definite opinion that ANY woman enrolled at MIT or Harvard is there to “achieve her MRS. Degree” and once she catches the right husband, she’ll be happy. No one at these schools seems to put much thought or time into their studies.
The worst part (or maybe just a bit that epitomizes and illustrates the whole attitude of the book): Ok, there’s an Artic research expedition going on. Two men, two women. One of the men is taking photos for the media. He says: “Ladies! … Could you do something that looks like you’re working? From over here it looks like Adrian [the other guy] is doing everything and you two are just standing watching.” The ‘girls’ giggle and respond “Well, that’s what’s happening, isn’t it?” Then the guy directs them what to do so it *looks* like they’re competent researchers, for the press. Throughout the book, it’s like this. Men are the ‘doers.’ Charlotte has a special talent, but it’s just something she’s born with, not something she works at or uses effectively. Over 650 pages, this gets really aggravating.
I’m adding one star for a cool (and devastating) theory as to why, in a galaxy filled with planets, we’ve never been contacted by alien life. But that’s one worthwhile paragraph in a book that overall, is not worth the time.
WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED HERE?