BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Aliens crash land in a mid-14th Century village while present day researchers try to discover why that village disappeared from the maps.
PROS: Believable, sympathetic characters; unusual first contact setting; thought provoking ideas about cosmology and religion.
CONS: Present day story line weaker than the historical one; too many coincidences overall.
BOTTOM LINE: A thought provoking first contact novel any SF fan should enjoy.
Coincidence is a funny thing. It was coincidence that I read Eifelheim first over the holiday break. It was coincidence that I read a first contact novel directly after reading another first contact novel, Blindsight, and coincidence plays a large role in Eifelheim.
Eifelheim is the story of a mid-14th century village that seems to have disappeared from the maps shortly after retreat of the Black Plague from Europe. Modern day historian, Tom Schwoerin and his companion, cosmologist Sharon Nagy, attempt to decipher the reason for the disappearance from the clues left over in the historical records. What they discover could change the way mankind looks at cosmology and open the way to the stars. Back in 1349, Pastor Dietrich runs the local church in Eifelheim, called Oberhochwald by its inhabitants, when, one morning, a mysterious object appears to crash into the forest near the village. Shortly thereafter, strange things are seen in the woods and Dietrich explores the crash site. What follows is an unusual first contact novel, full of fear, dread, and tragedy, but also with hope, faith and friendship, whose ending is as uplifting as it is bittersweet.
Eifelheim is sort of a fix-up novel. Flynn originally wrote a novella back in 1986. The modern day events of this story are based on that novella, which has been changed, I assume, to make it feel more modern. All of the 14th Century story is new, and takes up the bulk of the book, with Flynn swapping back and forth between times as needed. Thus, we get to see the re-discovery of Eifelheim in parallel with watching events lead up to its ‘disappearance’. Tom and Sharon pore over historical texts, gleaning clues about the characters presented in other story line. As readers, we get to the see the ‘reality’ of the situations in Eifelheim and how history has presented those events 600 years later. This adds a nice flavor to the re-discovery of what happened to Eifelheim. Sharon, in particular, is inspired by Tom’s work to investigate non-standard theories of cosmology and the speed of light that cost her some credibility. But we do know those theories play a large role for the aliens that crash landed in Eifelheim. The present day story line suffers a bit from this approach, and from being a novella, as the characters themselves are rather flat and events happen because they need to. A longer present day story would have fixed these issues, but also made the book longer. Eifelheim clocks in at just over 300 pages and a longer book would have lost some of the punch, so the shorter modern day story gets the job done.
By far, the best part of the book is the story of Eifelheim itself. Set during the onset of the Black Plague, there is an ever present feeling of doom, as the characters, and the reader, hope the plague will pass by, but expecting the worst. So, too, do the crashed aliens have their own looming doom. Marooned on a technically and scientifically backward world, they have little hope of making repairs and returning to their own world. The question is should they try to return or stay and make what life they can? As the story unfolds, its very clear that Flynn has done a lot of research on technology, cosmology and religion and the implications thereof. For instance, there is a device that allows the aliens to talk to humans. But how does each side know that the correct meaning behind their words is being communicated to the other side? This becomes very apparent when the aliens take a secular view of being ‘saved’ while Pastor Dietrich was using the term in the Christian sense. Several things like that are apparent in the book, but its very fascinating to see how scripture and Christian belief can be cast in a way to support a cosmology that supports FTL and alien beings. Obviously, Flynn has put much thought into how scriptures could be interpreted into a completely different language and still retain a coherent meaning, even if it isn’t what was intended. Sort of a ‘two sides to the same coin’ sort of thing. Very well done.
The other way this story shines is in the characters. Flynn goes to great lengths to create believable and sympathetic characters, including the aliens. We see them go about their daily lives and their struggle for survival. The backdrop of the plague, and the aliens face their own ‘plague’, adds that feeling of impending tragedy that heightens the emotional impact of everything that happens. Much like his earlier novel, The Wreck Of The River Of Stars, the events unfold with deliberate inevitability, finally ending in tragedy. Its left to the present day storyline to pick up the pieces and deliver an unexpected hopeful, yet bittersweet, ending. I wasn’t expecting the ending to resonate with me as much as it did. It’s the perfect the ending to this story. Kudos to Michael Flynn for creating such sympathetic characters.
About the only thing that bothered my somewhat about the book was the coincidences. The alien ship just happened to crash land near a village whose pastor turns out to be more scientifically inclined than most of that area. Most of the villagers, and the lord of the village, just happen to be tolerant, if not friendly, to aliens that look like giant grasshoppers. Tom and Susan just happen to be living together and their research just happens to feed off of each other to reach their conclusions. Susan just happens to make a crucial discovery while looking at an old manuscript of Tom’s that convinces her that Tom’s theory of Eifelheim is correct and sets into motion her investigations of alternate cosmological theories. Flynn makes an attempt to address these coincidences late in the book by hinting that a larger power may be at work here. Is that the same power that caused the coincidences that lead to my reading the book? That decision is left to the reader.
Eifelheim is a strong first contact novel that I would recommend to any SF fan, especially those who like thought provoking reads.