Friday, March 20, 2009

Eifelheim [Review]

Title: Eifelheim   
Author: Michael Flynn (author's live journal)
Copyright: 2006, Tor Books, New York
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 312 pages

Summary: This is a braided tale of time and space. Flynn takes us back to the culture of 14th century Rhineland Germany, a period of technological shifts and venture into the sciences. He introduces a foreign (or, as this is science fiction novel, alien) culture into the village of Oberhochwold. This culture contrasts sharply with the medieval culture because its governing values are more closely related to the modern sensibilities (mechanistically, scientifically oriented rather than theological). That tale is juxtaposed with the experience of a trio of modern-day researchers who are investigating issues tied to both time and space. The stories intertwine, but the tale of primary interest is the first contact story between the medieval priest, Father Dietrich, his parish, and the Krenk.
Flynn draws a parallel between the encounter of historians grappling with an ancient culture of centuries past with that of a science fiction "first contact" between space alien and mankind. The conflicts presented in scientific concepts and spiritual beliefs are intriguing because each side understands and explains the world differently. Father Dietrich, in a world that has only the most shallow grasp of mechanics, energy and disease, must communicate his rational understanding of how the world operates (temporal and eternal) to a highly advanced race of beings with a far more sophisticated understanding of how the world operates. While Dietrich is challenged to incorporate the aliens into his belief structure, the aliens are faced with technological, physical and ultimately spiritual challenges. When both sides are faced with an unreasoning challenge to survival (bubonic plague), which belief structure emerges as being correct? This is what *good* science fiction does -- it explores assumptions and ideas -- and it is not surprising that this novel was nominated for a Hugo Award. (It lost against Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge.)
Pacing is slow until the last quarter of the novel; the long build-up introduces a variety of questions relevant to the final outcome of the story. Flynn's use of language is not particularly lyrical, as one might expect of a trained mathematician and statistician. There is an extensive list of historical names and dates that play into the development of the theme as well as a complex set of fictional characters that one must keep straight. The characterization, however, is quite robust. These characters have flaws and temperament and behavioral quirks.
The author demands intellectual engagement by the reader because Eifelheim is neither a frothy space opera nor is it a bastardized medieval fantasy. There are lengthy passages of theology as well as physics. However, the story's conflict is primarily revealed in human capacity for understanding as well as a stubborn failure to understand. That extends not just to the inter-species relationships but the human relationships as well. Dietrich has a ward, his primary familial relationship, and that relationship is tested as is his primary professional relationship with a mendicant Franciscan, Father Joachim.  

Extract:  "There was no cadence to the voice," he decided, "or rather its cadence was mechanical, without rhetorical flourishes. It lacked scorn, amusement, emphasis,...hesitation. It said 'Many thanks' with all the feeling of a shuttlecock flying across a loom."
"I see," said Manfred, and Dietrich raised a finger post.
"And that was another convincing point. You and I understand that by 'see' you signified something other than a direct impression on the sense of sight. As Buridan said, there is more to the meaning of an utterance than the precise words uttered. But the Heinzelmannchen did not understand figures. Once it learned that the 'tongue' is a part of the body, it became confused when I referred to the 'German tongue'. It did not comprehend metonymy."
"That's Greek to me," Manfred said.
"What I mean, my lord, is that I think...I think they may not know poetry."
(page 76 of the hardcover)
For more, there is a limited preview on Google Books.
Also relevant: This novel was written as an offshoot of a novella originally written and published in 1986. The modern portions of this braided tale are taken from that novella, which was also nominated for a Hugo. Fans of James Blish's A Case of Conscience or Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow may find this to be of equal interest. Religious belief systems are accorded respect in this narrative  as having equal footing as scientific knowledge in constructing an understanding of how we traverse this world and our lives (again, that theme of temporal vs. eternal). This is a challenging read, but well worth the time it takes to get through it.