Book Review: Eifelheim – Michael Flynn (2006)
It’s all that reading that does it, Dietrich. It takes a man out of the world and pushes him inside his own head, and there is nothing there but spooks.
An alien craft crashes on 14th century Earth, just outside an isolated village in Germany; the village priest, Father Dietrich, a man of reason and science, discovers the aliens and forms a connection to them, eventually introducing them into his village.
I first saw this book on a reading list of first contact (with aliens) novels. I enjoy this sub-genre of science fiction because it is challenging to realistically depict a truly alien species while also shedding light on human nature. This novel had a unique historical setting (Germany in the Middle Ages), which made it doubly intriguing to me.
Flynn depicts daily life in the Middle Ages in great detail, such that the village and its inhabitants became very real to me. Besides imbuing the story with historical interest, he also brings in quantum physics to explain interstellar flight, and even plays the two disciplines off one another in a parallel story that takes place in the present (or near future). A physicist and her historian boyfriend discover the secret history of the village Eifelheim, where the spaceship crashed, and thus unlock the potential for humans to move into space.
But most of the novel takes place in the past. Flynn depicts his medieval villagers and their alien visitors almost lovingly, as real beings with real flaws who nonetheless are doing the best they can. But both the people and the aliens are victims of the larger forces of the universe. The aliens are stranded in a time when the technology to repair their ship simply doesn’t exist, and they cannot get adequate nutrition from Earth food. Then the Plague comes to the village.
This brings up religious and philosophical questions, which Father Dietrich asks: Are the aliens also children of God who can be saved? What is the meaning, if any, of their coming to that particular time and place on Earth? The answers are left up to the reader. In the end, the village itself is lost, its secret buried for 700 years, waiting for someone to happen upon it.
I enjoyed reading this book and felt I learned a lot from it about both quantum physics and religion. Some of the physics went over my head, though.
- William of Ockham, originator of Ockham’s Razor, appears as a minor character in the novel.
If you liked this book, you might also like: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
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Tags: Aliens, Black Death, Eifelheim, First contact stories, Fourteenth century, Germany, Historians, Historical science fiction, Human-alien encounters, Michael Flynn, Priests, Women physicists