Eifelheim: An elegant First Contact story

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn science fiction book reviewsEifelheim by Michael Flynn

Eifelheim is an interesting take on the First Contact story. This one takes place in the Middle Ages, as an alien ship crash lands in the Black Forest of Germany near the small village of Oberhochwald. Tied in to this tale of the past is one that takes place in the present as two researchers (and lovers) try to solve the mystery of the disappearance of the village of Eifelheim (once called Oberhochwald) from recorded history and the implications this may have on their separate fields of study.

I found the tale in the past to be the more compelling of the two, though they do work well together as a whole. Flynn does an excellent job of bringing to life a realistic Middle Ages that doesn’t look sneeringly down on the “superstitious savages” of that age. All of the characters we meet in Oberhochwald are fully developed people, none of whom are simply “good” or “bad.” In many ways it is actually they, and not the extra terrestrials, who are the real aliens to the modern reader as we struggle to comprehend the worldview that they take for granted. Despite this I found them all to be ultimately sympathetic, human characters. We primarily follow the story of Father Dietrich, the intelligent and sympathetic pastor of the Oberhochwald church as he first investigates, and then befriends the benighted starfarers, but all of the other people from his village whom we see cover the gamut of human experience and become more than just placeholders for “character type X.”

The Krenk, the insect-like aliens from another world, are by turns humorous and frightening in their interactions with the humans of the small village and Flynn again does an excellent job of making even these non-human pseudo-hivemind creatures into fully fleshed-out “people” (without falling into the trap of making his aliens simply humans in rubber suits).

As the story in the past builds up from a mystery into a full-blown tragedy that both we and the characters of the story see as the almost inevitable outcome of the circumstances in which they find themselves, we can do little but watch in fascinated horror. Despite this tragedy Flynn does not leave us without hope: we see in the heroic actions of the characters of this tale (both human and alien) an acknowledgment that goodness can cross all boundaries and we are given examples of selflessness and love that are truly inspiring.

Next to this tragedy of life, love and death it perhaps isn’t surprising that the story of two modern researchers grappling with the intellectual enigma of a lost medieval village and the secrets it may hold pales somewhat in comparison. The modern portions of the story still do hold some interest and are ultimately able to bring the tale full circle to a point of completion that is elegant in its resolution. Eifelheim is highly recommended.

Publication Date: October 17, 2006. In 1349, one small town in Germany disappeared and has never been resettled. Tom, a contemporary historian, and his theoretical physicist girlfriend Sharon, become interested. Tom indeed becomes obsessed. By all logic, the town should have survived, but it didn’t and that violates everything Tom knows about history. What’s was special about Eifelheim that it utterly disappeared more than 600 years ago? Father Deitrich is the village priest of Oberhochwald, the village that will soon gain the name of Teufelheim, in later years corrupted to Eifelheim, in the year 1348, when the Black Death is gathering strength across Europe but is still not nearby. Deitrich is an educated man, knows science and philosophy, and to his astonishment becomes the first contact between humanity and an alien race from a distant star when their interstellar ship crashes in the nearby forest. It is a time of wonders, in the shadow of the plague. Tom and Sharon, and Father Deitrich, have a strange and intertwined destiny of tragedy and triumph in this brilliant SF novel by the winner of the Robert A. Heinlein Award.

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TERRY LAGO, one of our regular guest reviewers, is a Torontonian who, like all arts students, now works in the IT field. He has been a fan of fantasy ever since being introduced to Tolkien by his older brother when he was only a wee lad, though he has since branched out to enjoy all spectrums of the Fantasy genre and quite a few of the science fiction one as well. Literary prose linked with well-drawn characters are the things he most looks for in a book.

View all posts by Terry Lago (guest)

3 comments

  1. I am fascinated by stories that explore the world view of people from different eras and try to capture it accurately. I think that takes truly disciplined imagination. This sounds like my kind of book! Thanks for the recommendation, Terry.

  2. I bought a copy years ago, and forgot all about it. Thanks for putting it back in my thoughts. Time to shuffle it up the TBR list.

  3. Terry Lago (guest) /

    I highly recommend it Marion and Bob…hope you enjoy it!

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