Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn

To say that the novel Eifelheim rolls together a handful of science fiction mainstays doesn't really do the book justice. Yes, there are a few going on in there: the bulk of the story is both an alien first-contact tale and a culture clash with moderns and medievals, and that, in turn, is conducted within a present-day Big Discovery sort of frame story, as two modern researchers try to piece together a best guess as to just what happened to disappear the village of Eifelheim back in 1348. But even if the pieces are recognizable, it's better than a patchwork of conventions, and this book comes together as something impressive and original, excellent both as an idea novel and as a character experiment.

The background is researched to a degree of sincerity that's impressive, but which, unfortunately, is most unwieldy at the very beginning. In chapter 2, we're introduced to a an academic couple who unwittingly find themselves working different angles of the same project. Tom is a "cliologist," a man who uses mathematical tools to study history, and while he seems like a sharp guy, he's even more bizarrely confident in his highly processed conclusions than is the average econometrician. (The doubt quotes, however, are because I can't tell if this field actually exists outside of fiction. I clearly don't possess Michael Flynn's commitment to background research.) His girlfriend Sharon is a theoretical physicist working out some implications of a higher-dimensional universe, and I can't really say how valid her conjectures are either, but that's because Flynn's physics kludges are at a pretty high level for sf, and he makes it easy to suspend my disbelief and pique curiosity about the underlying ideas. The problem with the frame story is that neither Tom nor Sharon start out as very compelling characters, and giving a gusty voice to the contemporary narrator (one of Tom's colleagues; the other sections are told in the usual third person omniscient--the author's own voice, which is better) only weighs them down more. Flynn tries to capture these two in a smart-person's lover's dialogue, but it's a bad vehicle for getting us up to speed--if there are people who talk about the high-level intellectual grounding of their work this much when they're off the clock, then I don't really want to spend any time with them. Their manner becomes more credible as they sink into their mutual obsessions, but they start off as just plain bores. It's the sort of thing that might carry the distance of certain kind of sf short (one of those purer "idea stories"), and that is in fact what the book grew from, but in a longer novel, it's not the best opening move.

And the novel is NOT a bore, not by any means. It's really engaging, and I'd rather convince you to keep reading it. Most of the story takes place in the middle ages, and with just a little faith, we're diving right into the heart of the Black Forest, with that earnestness now helping to paint things very sympathetically. Over the years, I've read a couple other novels set in a similar milieu, and I think that Flynn, at last, gets us down to the fact that we're dealing with people who are intelligent and capable on their own terms. I think more than most writers, he's really curious about their worldview more than about how they lived, going as far to claim the time of William of Ockham as a rare triumph of reason among the epochs, before better minds reverted to the romantic mysticism (as one character labels it) of the Renaissance. And while I doubt he has the accredited scholarship of Umberto Eco (and there's also no smokin' cool labyrinth, etc.), the comparison with the The Name of the Rose is too tempting. Flynn plays a very similar trick that Eco does (distilling Roger Bacon, Ockham, Buridan et al. to get a modern-style rational protagonist) with similar intentions (to dissect the middle age intellectual universe), but the author does not (as Eco so irritatingly did) treat the medievals with gigantic heaps of modern smugness. He admittedly cheats a lot with the main character, Pastor Dietrich, letting him correctly derive a lot of advanced concepts (right down to the etymology, and even though that's really a game he plays with the reader--do we usually think much about where words like "electronic" or "protein" or "microphone" come from?--it was a little too much for me) with the tools he has at hand, but Flynn has a great deal of respect for those tools, up to and including the theological ones, and the discussions of Christian morality (revealed truth to Dietrich and his flock, but one they are constantly working with as part of both their moral and natural philosophy) are as interesting as the technological ones. It ends up creating an interesting connection between their understanding and ours, and he lets Dietrich be persistently wrong about some things too, and at times lets his misunderstanding lead to profundity.

I think it works because Flynn takes two groups that are well-known strangers to the reader, common science fiction objects of scrutiny, and lets them investigate each other from mutual disadvantage. The aliens--big grasshopper-like creatures--are technologically advanced (only a couple breakthroughs past 2012 level) but seriously impaired, stranded with a broken vehicle in an unknown and possibly hostile or unsupportive environment, and with a deterioriating group dynamic. The villagers meanwhile, are as smart and inquisitive, and as charitable and suspcious, as any cross-section of human society, but when it comes to unforeseen problems like demonic visitors, even though they're in the midst of a scientific revolution of their own, are obviously inhibited by it being such an early one. They're also in sniffing distance of the Black Death, to which the reader is cued from the beginning, and slaves to a couple other known, if minor, historical events.

There are those interesting scientific and theological discussions between Dietrich and the visitors, but there's a satisfying cultural interaction to decode as well, and Flynn has a lot of space to get into both worlds. He adds some richness to medieval life (the local priest keeps a lot of contacts, and for just a little more scope, he's got an interesting backstory of his own too), and gives the aliens enough problems to get into their sometimes confusing society too. They're not quite human in the way they interact with each other, but they're fucked up in ways we can appreciate. With varying success, and with no shortage of ambiguity and difficulties, the groups interact and learn from each other (or fail to), get closer despite themselves, all for what may ultimately be no purpose at all. Their respective problems are left open. If there's a point to them meeting, it's maybe to be found hundreds of years later. It's a positive and fanciful story, well-informed, hopeful, and yet tethered to the complications of life. What more can you ask for?

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