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Eifelheim

Eifelheim
by Michael Flynn
Published by Tor, 2006
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Highly Recommended by: Elliot Hanowski
[ Eifelheim]

Book Rating
Rated 3 (Highly Recommended) by: 1 person
Rated 2 (Recommended) by: nobody
Rated 1 (Suggested) by: nobody
Rated 0 (Reviewed) by: nobody
Total Votes: 1 person
Average Rating: 3.00 (Highly Recommended)
Score: 0.30 (Reviewed)

What if the first contact between humanity and an intelligent alien species occurred in the Year of Our Lord 1348?

Some SF authors would have taken this concept and written a cautionary tale in which benighted priests declare the aliens to be demons and whip mobs of superstitious peasants into a killing frenzy. After all, was that not the Age of Faith, an era of theocracy, ignorance, and fear?

What Flynn has done instead is marvelously refreshing. Eifelheim is a carefully researched depiction of Rhineland in the 14th century, showing both the bright and dark aspects of medieval civilization and the small renaissance that was underway before the Black Plague. He illuminates some of the roots of the Scientific Revolution among natural philosophers like William of Ockham, Jean Buridan, and Nicholas Oresme.

Thus when grasshopper-like aliens, the Krenken, crash near the small Black Forest village of Oberhochwald, it is in fact their good fortune to encounter the local priest. Father Dietrich is a thoughtful and discerning man, who studied under Buridan at the University of Paris, and is adept at inquiring into the natural causes of things. His somewhat cool rationality is combined with deep Christian faith, which motivates him to display charity and hospitality to the stranded travelers.

Flynn does a wonderful job of depicting people who live in an Aristotelian universe attempting to communicate with beings that possess a post-Einsteinian science. The Krenken, in turn, are baffled but fascinated by human imagination and Christian ethical concepts. The complex religious, social and political arrangements of the era are brought to vivid life, such as the conflicts between the Great Houses, or between the radical "Spiritual Franciscans" and their enemies. But this is not simply a novel of ideas: the characterization is finely done, and one comes to sympathize deeply with the people of Oberhochwald, and even some of the Krenken. These are complex people with both virtues and foibles, and Flynn neatly sidesteps the stereotypes you might expect. Father Dietrich can seem almost too good to be true at times, but readers also come to know his faults and past sins.

While most of the novel is set in the 14th century, there is an interesting parallel tale about two scientists in the 21st century who stumble across the mystery of Oberhochwald. The town later became known as Eifelheim and was abandoned by human beings. Some interesting (but highly speculative) science is tossed around, while the social and emotional worlds of post-modern academics are portrayed with a certain amount of humour.

Stories involving the Black Plague rarely end happily, though there are more survivors in Eifelheim than there are in Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. Still, as in Willis' novel, what matters most is not death itself, but how that death is met. Dietrich and others display faith, hope and love in the face of a great tragedy.

Well-written and insightful, Eifelheim is one of the most sympathetic fictional depictions of medieval Christianity I have had the pleasure to read, approaching A Canticle for Leibowitz in its sophistication. This novel is a must for Christian fans of sf and anyone interested in the medieval era.

(Eifelheim is an extended version of Flynn's 1986 novella of the same title, which was nominated for a Hugo Award. The novel has also been nominated for a Hugo.) (March, 2007)

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