Saturday, 20 September 2014

Review - One Trillion Dollars by Andreas Eschbach

Translated by Frank Keith
Published as an eBook by Bastei Entertainment
I have only ever read one other book by Andreas Eschbach and that was his incredible science fiction epic ‘The Carpet Makers’. That book has a special meaning for me as it came along at a special time in my life. My son had just been born and during his first two weeks in this world I needed something to do between the regular feeding and cleaning. I had purchased The Carpet Makers many moons beforehand and now was the time to read it. While my son slept and my wife and I watched over him, I would read the book and get lost in the amazing universe of small people and huge empires. The book made a huge impression on me at an important time in my life and it is one book that I am incredibly attached to.

It’s been many years since I read The Carpet Makers. Sadly, I could not find any other Andreas Eschbach books because his work had not been translated into English. That is, not until I was handed an ebook copy of his newest novel, ‘One Trillion Dollars’.

‘John Fontanelli is paid a visit by the Vacchis, a family of Italian lawyers, who have some startling news. He is to inherit a fortune, which started as a three hundred florin investment in the sixteenth century by his ancestor Giacomo Fontanelli, but through the magic of compound interest has grown into a trillion dollars – and is still growing! In one fell swoop, John has become by far the richest person in the world, his net worth being bigger than the GDP of most countries.

Giacomo had prophesised that his heir would use the money to restore humanity’s lost future, but John has other ideas. Initially relishing his new life of luxury and with no idea how to fulfil the prophecy, he buys fast cars and a yacht; is personally petitioned by cardinals and politicians; and enjoys being chased by hoards of beautiful women. Eventually jaded by his wealth however, he is contacted by the mysterious Malcolm McCaine, who claims to understand the prophecy and has a vision to improve the world both ecologically and socially with the Fontanelli fortune. Following some strategic investments on McCaine’s advice, John gains the power to decide the fate of corporations, currencies, and even countries’ economies. Nothing and no one can stand in their way…but is McCaine really a visionary and genius? Or is he a dangerous and manipulative madman?’

There’s no long-winded introduction of the protagonist John Fontanelli – you get to know him through some snapshots of his miserable job, his broken relationships and his uncertain future. At first I thought that I would have liked to have a bit more background on him but Eschbach wastes no time in getting to the meat of the story. It’s then you realise that the caricature of Fontanelli is there so that you have a point of view, so that you can experience what it’s like to be suddenly thrust into a world where you will want for nothing. Although you come to know, and love, John throughout the book I do get the impression that he is initially there so that the reader has a viewpoint on the extraordinary circumstances he finds himself in.

Almost straight away you’re asking yourself the question ‘what would I do if I inherited a trillion dollars?’ John helps to address and even question these thoughts in the opening chapters. There’s the period of disbelief, the uncertainty, the sudden bursts of spending. Then there’s the soul searching and, more important than anything else and the driving force behind this novel, what to do with so much wealth.

The outside problems are also addressed – sycophantic ‘admirers’, problematic friends and hangers-on, legal disputes, people coming out of the woodwork to take advantage of the money, false friendships, fawning diplomats and the crushing paparazzi and media who besiege his life. These are things that John confronts and, in many ways, I hope that I’d act in a similar way that he does. All through this, John Fontanelli remains a likeable if slightly frustrating character. Likeable because he remains grounded in the real world as best he can and frustrating because he has a tendency to be led around by those around him. More than once I found myself almost yelling at the book, ‘just tell him to get lost!’ when he was dealing with a problematic character. The I found myself thinking ‘was that me talking, or the money?’

There’s another character in the book, Malcolm McCaine, who comes into John’s life in an underhanded and mysterious way. His character is at first confusing and then incredibly harsh, but it’s very difficult to go into any detail about his role in John’s life, and future, without giving away some serious plot points that work best when unexpected. I’ll just say this; there was more than one moment in the book when I wished I could have reached into the pages and throttled him.

Both characters are well realised and have plenty of layers, especially John who you learn more about as the story progresses, so you get to watch his journey and watch him grow at the same time (not always in directions you either expected or wanted).

At first I found some of the worldwide and geopolitical business workings somewhat far-fetched and unbelievable, so it was with some shock that when I looked into these things a little further that nearly all of what Eschbach wrote was based on fact. Does the world really work this way? This book has opened my eyes to a few things and has surprised me in many ways and much of that surprise translates into the real world. It’s a bit of a shock to the system.

If I had to gripe about two things they would be this. Firstly – and I appreciate that a story such as this positively calls out for it – there’s a lot of exposition in this book. And I mean a lot. The nature of the novel means that crash a course in global politics, social and geographical, and the worldwide economy is in order. Shares, acquisitions, mergers, companies, everything is touched upon or talked about in detail and I found myself having to read certain paragraphs more than once to be sure that I had understood what was being said, and how it pertained to the story. It did feel like certain chapters were nothing but walls of text, and I’m not a fan of exposition in stories, but sadly it’s something that had to be done to make the story work.

Secondly, the end was very sudden and, in my view, somewhat whimsical. It didn't ruin or cheapen the book – far from it – but I did feel that after following the journey of the world’s richest man it concluded rather quickly and neatly. The annoying thing is that I can’t explain why without ruining the ending for you. Just be aware that it is one of those endings that people will either love or hate. I lean towards love but I’m not 100% convinced that it’s the way the book should have ended, but it’s a satisfying read overall and it certainly didn't discolour the rest of the novel for me.

One Trillion Dollars is an excellent book that will leave you wondering, pondering and thinking about not only the idea of having so much money that you can, quite literally, have anything you want in the world,  but also about the roles of government and business and how it affects our everyday lives. It also addresses the state of the world and the future we’re heading into. It works not only as a thought exercise but also as a thriller as it does a good job of making you turn the page to see what happens next. For a novel with no car chases or gunfights that’s an amazing achievement and a testament to Andreas Eschbach’s writing. You just have to know.

A great book that’ll keep you pretty much gripped from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

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