Thursday, June 19, 2008
"The Hob Carpet" by Ian R. MacLeod
"The Hob Carpet" by Ian R. MacLeod is an explicit depiction of the horrors of slavery. The hobs in the story are a native species enslaved by the humans of the planet. (I first pictured them as very small, like gnomes, but later realized that they were the size of small humans.) There are thousands of them for every human, and they do everything. A human butcher never cuts meat, his hobs do. Some people are carried everywhere by hobs. They raise the children, farm, build, carry—they do everything. The humans live in almost complete decadence, only taking up the more "intellectual" chores such as arranging trade.
The lives of the hobs are horrible, and this triggers the Reader Warning at the beginning of the story. They're mostly mute, often castrated, raped by human overseers, and sacrificed by the hundreds during religious ceremonies.
We learn all about them from our first-person narrator. He's a misanthropic naturalist. He studies his hobs in order to get more efficiency from them, and soon has the most productive plantation around. This is a dangerous spot to occupy when the climate is changing and the humans around you are suffering. Rumors spread about him, labeling him a hob lover and eventually a devil worshiper, until eventually the priests arrest him and arrange for a show trial. During his long captivity our hero develops many theories of natural history by observing what he can and reading religious texts that his wife brings him. He eventually discovers evolution while being locked up like Galileo, and makes some interesting inferences about the relationship between hobs and humans. He and his wife were long estranged because of his impotence around her, but they reconcile during his imprisonment.
This man is basically a classical sf protagonist: a keen, cold, brilliant intellect. Yet MacLeod makes clear is that those attributes are in no way sufficient when it comes to righting wrongs. While he was a kinder hob master, believing that light treatment will get better results from them, he doesn't feel any empathy for them. He never seeks to appreciate them as individuals or to free them from servitude (until his plantation is overrun by angry neighbors). It is his humanist wife, one who cares about suffering, who really starts to make a difference in the lives of the hobs.
At the end of this story, MacLeod pulls out all the stops, attacking religion as it perpetrates injustice, valorizing religion as it can right injustice, celebrating science for its enlightening knowledge, and castigating science for not acting on that knowledge. It may have been a more powerful story if we'd gotten to know the wife a little bit better—as it is she is a bit of a stereotyped woman, very sexual and caring, without a lot of depth. She's portrayed more as the narrator's opposite than as a person in her own right, although that may be the consequence of having a misanthropic narrator. It's a powerful story nonetheless. It may preach to the choir but it challenges our complacency.