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Lord of All Things, by Andreas Eschbach


Title: Lord of All Things
Author: Andreas Eschbach
Translator: Samuel Willcocks
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Format: Trade Paperback
Year: 2014
Pages: 647
Genre: Science Fantasy
Subgenre: Contemporary SFF
Full Disclosure: Received this copy free through the Amazon Vine program. Did not finish it.

Jacket Description
They are just children when they first meet: Charlotte, daughter of the French ambassador, and Hiroshi, a laundress's son. One day in the playground, Hiroshi declares that he has an idea that will change the world. An idea that will sweep away all differences between rich and poor.

When Hiroshi runs into Charlotte several years later, he is trying to build a brighter future through robotics. Determined to win Charlotte's love, he resurrects his childhood dream, convinced that he can eradicate world poverty by pushing the limits of technology beyond imagination. But as Hiroshi circles ever closer to realizing his vision, he discovers that his utopian dream may contain the seeds of a nightmare -- one that could obliterate life as we know it.

Crisscrossing the globe, from Tokyo to the hallowed halls of MIT to desolate Arctic islands and Buenos Aires and beyond -- far beyond -- Lord of All Things explores not only technology's dizzying potential, but also its formidable dangers.

My Review
I loved Andreas Eschbach’s previous novel, The Carpet Makers, currently his only other novel translated into English. It was very much an idea-driven science fiction novel, old-fashioned in a very good way, fitting nicely in the tradition of Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven and Isaac Asimov. And the translation by Doryl Jensen was superb, the prose clear and spare and elegant in a way that made the eventual mystery reveal more powerful.

Unfortunately, I could not even finish Lord of All Things.

It is a much more modern novel. The Carpet Makers was episodic, each chapter essentially a short story of its own where the connection between them was simply that each story brought the narrative a little closer to the big reveal of the ending. Lord of All Things, on the other hand, is a continuous narrative, following Hiroshi Kato’s life from his childhood in Japan to his college years at MIT to what I assume will be his adult life as one of the world’s leading robotics experts.

The Carpet Makers’ strength was Eschbach’s (and Jensen’s) skill with building atmosphere, and with dispensing clues to the central mystery one by one at exactly the right pace to keep the dramatic tension rising. The strengths required by the story Lord of All Things seems to be telling are very different – this novel needs Hiroshi, at the very least, to be a compelling character, a character with charisma (for the reader, if not necessarily for the other characters around him). And with the number of words devoted to setting each scene it also really needs a writer with the gift of capturing a sense of place, the specific details that make it the French Ambassador’s compound in Tokyo or an MIT frat house instead of just a generic place where rich people live or place where college students get drunk.  And for me, Eschbach failed at both of these elements, failed so miserably that I could not stand to read more than 160 pages of the 647 page novel.

I found Hiroshi incredibly bland as a character, and I will admit to being additionally put-off by the way he is so much the sexless, emotionless East Asian male stereotype, interested only in science and working all hours of the day. (Even though he’s only half-Japanese, the text does nothing to establish his identity as truly biracial, other than the obligatory line about “Oh noes, Japanese people are so racist they shun me for being half-white!”) There is an attempt to lampshade this fact in an exchange between Hiroshi and his MIT roommate, but it does far more harm than good:

“Now you’re talking like an inscrutable Japanese.”
“And you’re talking like a hot-blooded Chicano.”

It’s an exchange that isn’t called for by the rest of the conversation preceding it, and hasn’t been established as simply the way Hiroshi and his roommate talk to each other previous to this, so it seems out of character. It hits my ear as entirely off, tone-deaf.

The settings seem off as well. I haven’t personally been to Japan, but I am of Japanese descent and my family has visited repeatedly, and nothing about Hiroshi’s experience felt like it was taking place in Japan to me. Similarly, I’ve only visited Boston once, but my best friend went to Harvard, and none of the scenes surrounding the college life in that town ring true with my first and secondhand experiences either of the Boston colleges or or American college life in general.

Everything, overall, felt somewhat old-fashioned. Offhand mentions of the internet site the novel fairly close to the present, but no one appears to have a cell phone and everyone’s attitudes seem stuck somewhere decades ago. The female characters might as well be called co-eds, not derogatorily, but just in the way that they are attending college but the life they seem to see for themselves after college is one of being wives, first and foremost. There is an incredibly racist and misogynistic caricature of a villain who’s a repeated POV character, but the ways that he is racist and misogynistic are heavy-handed and flat and, again, seem like something more out of the 1950s than the 2000s.

And where Jensen’s translation of The Carpet Makers was elegant, Willcocks’ translation of Lord of All Things feels clunky to me, each sentence plodding and slightly repetitive. A selection from the beginning of chapter 3:

He had an appointment. And he wasn’t going to let anything stop him from keeping it. Hiroshi went around the compound wall and slipped behind the tree with the gap in the spikes. He fetched the rope from its hiding place in the knotted hole where a branch had died, wriggled through the gap, and let himself down as quietly as he could. Then he went the same way he had gone on Tuesday. He didn’t run into anyone, and there wasn’t a single car parked on the stretch of tarmac he had to cross. That was probably because it was Sunday.

There isn’t enough variety in the sentence structure for the narrative to have any character of its own, and the pacing of it feels choppy. Additionally, there are scattered bits of British idioms in the dialogue that confused me until I flipped to the back and discovered the translator is an Englishman who’s spent most of his life in central Europe. Given that much of the novel is set in the U.S. and it’s being sold to an American audience, I think it would have made more sense to get an American translator.

There are hints that if I stick with this novel it might repay me by becoming more idea-focused; Hiroshi is determined to revolutionize the way people work, driven by his experience of growing up in working class poverty and the class bias of his paternal family, and the book jacket implies he will succeed in that attempt. I assume he will do that by building robots, but that there will be some rather significant down side that he fails to foresee. I cannot tell whether the book is ultimately going to be anti-technology, but it might very well be. I also cannot tell how Hiroshi’s friend Charlotte’s gift of magically knowing the history of objects through touch will fit in to that future. But ultimately, the book is simply too painful to read for me to push through in the hope that the payoff will be worth it.

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction: ★
  Intellectual Satisfaction: ★
  Emotional Satisfaction: ★
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Pass
Books I was reminded of:
Will I read more by this author? Maybe. I won't read any more that are translated by Samuel Willcocks, and the jacket description would have to indicate that the novel is more like The Carpet Makers than Lord of All Things.


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