Eifelheim: Magnificent SF combining science, history, and historical fiction

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsEifelheim by Michael Flynn science fiction book reviewsEifelheim by Michael Flynn

Eifelheim is one of those transcendent science fiction stories where an author is able to treat very human and Earth-bound issues with a well-reasoned and fascinating gloss of aliens and science. Author Michael Flynn‘s alien mythos and capabilities are believable and seamlessly integrated into the very real history of plague-era Germany.

I picked up Eifelheim because I love a good story of first contact. I find myself continually drawn to the classics in this science fiction genre, but also the classic tales of first contact of the very terrestrial kind: human exploration and discovery. Both Hernán Cortés and his first Aztec meetings as well as Pizarro and the Incas hold special fascination for me, as do much of that era’s tribal first contact with “civilizations.”

The core of Eifelheim revolves around a Middle Ages Catholic priest who manages a church in the high forests of Germany. This quiet little fairy tale village, Oberhochwald, is literally shaken at its roots following a freakishly strong and sudden storm. Much more than a storm, an alien ship has crash-landed and Father Dietrich is thrust to the forefront of this tale of first contact.

In parallel, two modern-day scientists — a historian and physicist — independently come across clues that slowly reveal why this village, over time, not only changed its name to Eifelheim, but also completely disappeared from the historical map. Flynn does a masterful job combining the root Middle Ages story with the all-too-brief and tantalizing modern day vignettes. In combination, they build a compelling mystery with well-rounded and emotive characters (both human and alien).

Another reason I read this story was due to a recommendation I’d found upon finishing Connie WillisDoomsday Book… a terrific time travel/historical fiction tale also based in plague-era Europe. The books are very similar in their structure of parallel stories that bounce between medieval-specific storylines and modern plot and interactions that drive the overall narrative.

The aliens in Germany are unable to easily manufacture the components required to fix their ship and return home, and with the help of a translating mechanism, the foreigners and country-folk find an uneasy peace in their co-habitation.

The heart of Flynn’s book is really about discovery and the very human and relatable interactions between these beings from very different worlds and different societies. The aliens aren’t just different biologically (they look like giant grasshoppers) and technologically, but they exist with an imbued sense of community and an innately bred need to live within a very structured societal existence.

As the historian delves deeper into the mystery of the missing village, he discovers the myth and legend behind Eifelheim. And this is where the story shines. Flynn builds a wonderful world out of this Middle Ages town and the odd circumstances of its disappearance. Father Dietrich develops the initial and most poignant relationships with the aliens who come to be known as the Krenken and over time takes full advantage to turn these beings into new parishioners.

The Krenken are introduced to Christ as the “lord of the stars” whom the people expect to return soon to save humanity. The Krenken see in this man-above-men as their own savior … an individual who may be able to rescue them from Earth and help them return home. Numerous times Flynn writes of the conflict between the figurative and literal that is often taken for granted. But when placed in a first contact context, these become all too obviously intrusive and confusing.

The Krenken see a strong sense of individualism in the humans … something that doesn’t exist amongst themselves. And over several months a few of the aliens “go native” and seek opportunities to further blend in with the Oberhochwald community.

I fear exposing too much of this wonderful story that is best read by unwrapping each layer after satisfying layer. Flynn marvelously reveals the inner character of humans and aliens alike while immersing the reader in the existence of life during Middle Ages Europe. The book touches on evolutionary theory, the age of religious and scientific enlightenment, and the thinking that propelled the world out of the dark ages and into the brightness of the renaissance.

Eifelheim is scientific and science fiction. It’s also history and historical fiction. And while doing all of these things very well, the book is character-driven and implemented so well by Flynn that it crosses the boundaries of traditional categorization.

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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JASON GOLOMB, who joined us in September 2015, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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One comment

  1. This sounds wonderful, Jason. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

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