When I read the review of a new science fiction novel,Eifelheim, that was excerpted by Julie D, I was hooked. The book review from Claw of the Conciliator made the novel sound almost too good to be true:
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.
Who could resist a science fiction novel where faith is treated intelligently and does not conflict with science and where the priest is not a superstitious bumpkin? i didn’t even click through to read the rest of the review (which you should do). Instead, I headed down to the library and picked up a copy of the book. I wasn’t disappointed with my haste. In fact, I was delighted.
Eifelheim felt like a cross between a historical novel and science fiction. Michael Flynn takes great pains in exploring the worldview of his medieval men, which is almost more alien than that of the creatures from another star. Not only that, both men and aliens are real people, not cardboard cutouts. They are sinners and saints, wise men and fools, and some are likable and others are not.
I had one or two very minor quibbles with things said by Catholic characters. But they were minor, very fine points that could simply be chalked up to character flaws and not a misunderstanding of Catholic teaching.
I’d also like to add that I was struck several times by apt descriptions, witty remarks and good dialog as well as a few laugh-out-loud funny bits (that may not be funny to anyone else but me).
I give Eifelheim two thumbs up. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a while and science fiction the way it should be done.