by Michael F. Flynn
A book review by Mark L. Olson
Tor 2006, $25.95, 300 pp
I’m going to restrain myself and not gush – I’m going to try to, anyway.
This is the best novel of the year, and of several other years, also. (And that’s saying a lot in a year which produced both Glasshouse and Rainbows End.)
“Eifelheim” was a damn fine novella which got a Hugo nomination twenty years ago, and Eifelheim is a novel created from it. In the novella Tom is a cliologist (a mathematical historian) and his girlfriend, Sharon, is a theoretical physicist, both professors at the same school. Tom’s cliology predicts where villages should be and he’s trying to understand why there is no village at a particular location in Germany’s Black Forest where his theory says one should be.
As he studies the records (medieval court records, church records, travelers’ journals, letters, business records, etc.) he very slowly pieces together a strange story: An alien spaceship crashed there in the late 1300s and gave rise to a local belief that the spot was a haunt of devils – the town’s name “Eifelheim” itself turns out to be a corruption of “teufelheim” or “devil town”.
It was a great story (and should have won the Hugo that year, IMO.)
The novel Eifelheim expands the story by taking the novella and interleaving the much longer and richer story of events back in the mid-1300s. It begins when lightening out of a blue sky strikes deep in a nearby forest one day and Pastor Dietrich, a learned man, feels sparks jumping from his hand. He is puzzled, but shrugs and goes on. But soon, odd things start to happen. There are rumors of demons being sighted and other strangenesses. Eventually, he goes to investigate and discovers a strange building deep in a burned clearing and things like giant grasshoppers working around it.
Dietrich is a learned man and a smart man – a genius – who chose to be the parish priest in a small town in the Black Forest, but not because he turned his back on learning. His immediate reaction is that this is very interesting and he wants to know more. His reactions strike me as plausible – I would hope that that is how I would feel in similar circumstances. (In one of the few things in the book which strikes me as a bit off, however, Fr. Dietrich is just a little too good at applying medieval science and philosophy and getting good answers. His batting average is too high.)
The aliens have a translator AI which quickly learns enough medieval German to allow communication, of a sort. This is one of the particularly excellent aspects of the book. The AI learns well, but is limited both by the limitations of the languages – how can any translator translate theoretical physics into medieval German since the words just aren’t there? – and also because it can only translate concepts it can understand and that’s basically limited to the concrete. Throughout the book the limitations of the translations impede mutual understanding, sometimes an in amusing way, other times with serious consequences.
Another extraordinarily well-done aspect of the book is the interplay between the three cultures, our own, the medieval Germans’, and the Krenken (Fr. Dietrich’s name for the aliens). In some ways both cultures are alien to us, yet both also have points of congruence with ours.
The Krenken are genuine aliens – neither their society nor their motivating emotions are very similar to ours (and Flynn does a first-rate job of showing this to us). Yet the Krenken are an advanced scientific race and while we are no more able to really share their psychology than Fr. Dietrich was, our shared scientific background lets us often guess what they are trying to say even when Fr. Dietrich can’t.
The medieval Germans are alien too, in their own way. Medieval ways of thinking about problems were deep and elaborate and not at all foolish or backward – Aristotelian physics, for example, was a powerful theory capable of considerable explanatory power – but in the last 700 years we have learned so much more and diverged from them so much, that while we share their emotions and motivations completely, we frequently can’t follow their verbal reasoning. This interplay of the three cultures was a true joy.
So: The Kreken who look like giant grasshoppers are stranded on Earth near an isolated village in the Black Forest. What will happen? Again, there are at least three stories here: How the villagers react to the Krenken, how the Krenken react to the humans, and how the outside world eventually reacts to both.
The first two are brilliantly done, the third ultimately doesn’t matter.
The villager reaction to the Krenken is admirably complex. With the village priest and the local Herr (roughly the equivalent of a rich English knight of the same period, owning a small castle and a score of fighting men) welcoming the Krenken, there is no violence, but a substantial portion of the village never comes to terms with them. On the other hand, many other villagers do come to see the Krenken as people and take them in and succor them as castaways. The villagers are people just like us and react in each in their own ways, just like we would. (And life goes on, also, just like it would for us in a similar situation.)
On the Krenken side, also, there is sometimes a meeting of the minds. Being a scientific people they understand the villagers in a way the villagers never understand the Krenken, but they also have a great deal of difficulty transcending their own limitations. They’re evolved from something like our social insects and while they are no longer social insects – they don’t have hives or breeding queens or anything like that – their instincts are much more hierarchical and group-oriented than ours, and they’re more inclined to follow authority – and authority among the Krenken is badly fragmented after their disastrous arrival on Earth and the deaths of many of the crew. Some of the Krenken befriend the villagers, and especially Fr. Dietrich, while others have trouble dealing with aliens as equals.
Dietrich eventually converts some of them to Christianity, though how deep the Krenken understanding is, is hard to tell – the translator, as you may imagine, is particularly bad at things like religion and philosophy where the concepts are so far from the concrete. Nonetheless, when things turn bad, many of those Krenken (and some of the unconverted) perform unexpected acts of charity and self-sacrifice.
And things must eventually turn bad. If the outside world learns of the Krenken, something will happen, probably something dire. And the Krenken themselves are dying of a nutritional deficiency. It’s a race against time as the Krenken attempt to repair their ship using local materials.
The outside world does eventually get wind that something odd is going on and the local Bishop sends papers asking Fr. Dietrich to explain, but this is also the time of the Black Death and before the outside world can interfere much in the normal way, it interferes in the form of the plague.
The last part of the book sees the plague killing many villagers while most (but not all) of the Krenken dare a departure home in their partly-repaired ship, which will probably leave them stranded to die in hyperspace. It is a time of horror, but it is redeemed by the kindness and sacrifice and mutual support of individuals, both human and Krenken.
Flynn has created a masterwork, here, blending human drama with superb SF and an amazing recreation of a world lost to us.
When I was done reading it, my reaction was that this is one of the best SF novels I’ve ever read, and, certainly, it’s my choice for the best of 2006. (I’ll need to re-read it in a few years to see how well it holds up before I’ll call it one of the all-time greats.)
I have very, very few complaints about it. In fact, the only thing I thought was even slightly off was, as I noted above, that Fr. Dietrich was a bit too good to be true. A truly kind man who was also a genius and great scholar just happening to be living in the remote location the Krenken arrive at is a bit of a coincidence. But I guess that one coincidence is allowed.
See also my review of In the Country of the Blind by Michael F. Flynn