Eifelheim

by Michael Flynn

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2006
ISBN: 0-765-30096-6
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 320

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Eifelheim opens in Germany, in the summer of 1348, with a village priest named Dietrich and a day that seems fraught with odd feelings and strange reactions. In a closely described and detailed scene that typifies this novel, Dietrich muses philosophically and performs a few experiments, determining that the strangeness seems to come from a pervasive electrical charge. A few impressive events and disconcerting meetings later and one gets a first contact novel with a unusual twist. In a meeting between sentient giant grasshoppers and a 14th century Catholic natural philosopher, the reader finds oneself not infrequently identifying more with the grasshoppers.

The strongest part of this book is Flynn's vivid descriptions and detailed portrayal of manorialism, early natural philosophy, and the intellectual model of the world prevelant at the time. I'm not a sufficient expert in history (political, social, or scientific) to critique the accuracy, but it certainly felt convincing, which is most of what I ask of a novel. Flynn deserves particular praise for an adroit handling of religion: given the time and place, almost everything about an encounter with stranded aliens will involve religion, superstition, and moral quandries, and Flynn uses this to great effect for characterization and plot. Mixing a highly educated Catholic priest with a fervant Franciscan monk shows the religious dilemmas from multiple perspectives, neither of which is belittled in Flynn's treatment. The monk, whom the reader starts off disposed against, ends up a remarkably sympathetic character without casting Dietrich in any less of a positive light.

Flynn establishes a naturally hierarchical bent for his aliens, and either through nature or through the effects of their translation device gives them a very literal attitude. This works beautifully with the questions of religion and belief in the novel, as well as the manorial system. In some ways, the alien beliefs clash; in others, they fit in remarkably well, more so than they would in a modern society. Flynn makes instances of alien conversion to medieval Christianity feel realistic and uses that as a springboard not to an abstract discussion of religion but a concrete portrayal of what religion meant to those people at that time. This is one of the better handlings of religion I've read in science fiction.

The problem comes more on the science side, and here Flynn suffers somewhat from the constant peril of a historical novel: it's all too tempting to have one's protagonists aware of every important development of the time. This happens in Eifelheim in the area of natural philosophy; Dietrich, despite a background that partly justifies it, is rather too thoroughly aware of every principle discussed for me to quite swallow. The worst is how he makes up words for the new concepts the Krenken show him and inerringly picks just the word that we would later use for that concept, but even apart from that poor authorial choice Dietrich sometimes reads like a history of science book masquerading as a man. Flynn does use this to good effect to portray and contrast the 14th century attitude towards nature, but belief in Dietrich as a character suffers in the process.

The medieval first contact story is only one of two strands in the book, but the other strand is decidedly odd and never well-integrated with the story. The second strand is apparently closely related to a Hugo-nominated short story of the same name (which I have not read), and I can see how, if teased apart from the medieval narrative, it could stand on its own as good short fiction. It follows a cliologist (a mathematical historian) and a theoretical physicist in the present day or near future (the sections are labelled "now" but the technology is mildly futuristic). The cliologist is attempting to determine why Eifelheim disappeared during the Black Death and was never resettled. The physicist is developing a new model of reality. Their stories end up converging in intriguing ways.

Unfortunately, while their lines of inquiry are clearly linked to the main story of the novel and do converge with each other, they never converge thematically with events in the past. Despite several tie-ins through discovered documents and theories, I never felt the interplay and narrative hand-off between the two threads that one needs in a book of this sort. Eifelheim felt to the end like two stories told about the same event but independent of each other, with neither causal nor thematic links. The stories are also told in far different styles: the past gets the detailed description and scenery of a novel, and the current segments kept the quick descriptions, scant scenery, and small cast of a short story. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the current strand could be omitted entirely, but the purpose it served for me was a palette-cleansing break from Dietrich's time rather than a true addition to the overall story.

I think Eifelheim will succeed best for people who are fascinated by the period of its main setting or by the history of philosophy and don't mind occasionally leaden or too-cute guideposts for the comparisons and contrasts. More broadly, I'm torn. At times, I found Flynn's descriptions vivid, beautiful, and enlightening; at other times, I think he put too much research into the story, winked at the reader too much, or went over the top on description. The descriptions of the plague in particular go past the heart-wrenching balance of other SF plague novels (naming the specific one I have in mind is a mild spoiler, so I won't) and into horrifying disgust. But Dietrich is a complex and compelling character, as is Joachim, and by the middle of the book I found I cared about the Krenken as well. Introducing William of Ockham as a character felt gratiutous, but the conflict between Krenken science and Dietrich's understanding explained both surprisingly well.

In short, a flawed but interesting book, and one I'm not unhappy to see nominated for a Hugo (although I don't think it deserves to win).

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-04-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21