Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (2006) 320 p.

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In the year 1348, in the village of Oberhochwald in the Black Forest, a terrible thunder and fire tears through the nearby woods despite the cloudless sky. Venturing to investigate, parish priest Dietrich discovers a group of strange travellers have arrived; injured, frightened, and terrifyingly alien. In the modern day, historical researcher Tom uncovers evidence of a village that inexplicably vanished in the 14th century – not unusual in the era of the Black Death, but this region was never resettled, leaving behind only rumours of evil demons and cursed ground. That’s the elevator pitch for Eifelheim: a first contact story set in medieval Germany. It’s an immediately engaging concept, which would be worth checking out no matter who was writing it and no matter how it turned out. But Michael Flynn takes that idea beyond anything you’d expect for a potboiler sci-fi novel, creating a meticulously researched and wonderfully written combination of historical fiction and science fiction.

There are certain expectations and assumptions we bring to a story like this, which are heightened by the frame narrative of cliologist Tom (a science that sounds made up, but isn’t) and his physicist girlfriend Sharon. The present-day characters uncover certain clues about the fate of Oberhochwald (later renamed Eifelheim) which hint at what might occur in the main narrative; but because they’re looking down time’s telescope at fragments that are difficult to decipher, certain things we learn about end up playing out quite differently from our initial assumptions. The present-day frame narrative seems annoyingly pointless for most of the book, but it comes into its own towards the end – particularly the novel’s conclusion – and makes much more sense once you know Flynn originally published Eifelheim back in 1986 as a much shorter novella consisting only of the present-day chapters.

Both the 1986 novella version and the 2006 novel version of Eifelheim were Hugo nominees, and deservedly so. This is easily the best first contact novel I’ve ever read, one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read, and one of the best books I’ve read all year. One reason I was so impressed was how thoroughly Flynn subverted my expectations. We know that Oberhochwald will vanish; we know this story does not have a happy ending. The alien castaways – Krenken, as the Germans dub them – resemble enormous, monstrous grasshoppers, and an uneasy tension exists at the beginning of the novel, while Dietrich and the inner circle of villagers who know of their camp in the woods try to determine their nature. Some naturally assume they are demons; Dietrich argues they are travellers from a far land, creatures of God like anybody else, and that it is the villagers’ duty as Christians to help them. It also becomes apparent, however, that the Krenken have a rigid (say, insectile) social order maintained by domination and violence – and a mindset that does not necessarily limit that domination and violence to their own kind. The knowledge that Oberhochwald is in its final months is present from the beginning and hangs ominously over the initial proceedings. There is an eerie moment, concluding a chapter, when one of the lower-ranked Krenken – who controls the aliens’ MacGuffin translator device – tells Dietrich that he knows the nicknames the priest has given to some of the higher-ranked Krenken are insulting:

“Wait. How should I call you? What is your name?”
The great yellow eyes turned on him. “As you will. It will amuse me to learn your choice. The Heinzelmaannchen tells me what means ‘gschert’ and ‘kratzer,’ but I have not permitted it to overset these terms into our speech according to their proper meanings.”
Dietrich laughed. “So. You play your own game.”
“It is no game.” And with that, the creature was gone, bounding from the window noiselessly into the Lesser Wood below Church Hill.

One of the reasons Eifelheim works so well as a first contact novel is because it’s set in the Middle Ages, greatly distancing the human side of affairs from the reader’s perspective. The villagers have a fundamentally different way of viewing the world, one in which everything is first filtered through the lens of their religion. The Krenken, on the other hand, are interdimensional aliens who know about electricity and space travel and bacteria. There are thus many sequences in which the reader understands what both sides mean perfectly well, while the stranded spacefarers and the German peasants misunderstand each other’s meaning. Flynn is a smart enough writer to know that a translator MacGuffin is not a cure-all; language is a more complicated thing than that, and both sides often discuss the difficulty of the meaning – of metaphor, of simile, of truly understanding what it is the other species means when they come from such different societies. They often arrive at different interpretations based on simple description; this minor example stems from the Krenken describing to Dietrich that many of those stranded were passengers, not crew:

“I will say now a thing, though it shows us weak. We are a mixed folk. Some belong to the ship, and its captain was their Herr. The captain died in the shipwreck and Gschert now rules. Others form a school of philosophers whose task is to study new lands. It was they who hired the ship. The Kratzer is not their Herr, but the other philosophers allow him to speak for them.”
“Primus inter pares,” Dietrich suggested. “First among equals.”
“So. A useful phrase. I will tell him. In the third band are those who travel to see strange and distant sights, places where the well-known have lived or where great events have happened…. What call you such folk?”
“Pilgrims.”

 

Where of course we would call them tourists. This is a throwaway example; a more important misunderstanding occurs when they discuss the possibility of the villagers helping the Krenken to go home:

“No, no, no. It cannot be walked, and your carts cannot endure the journey.”
“Well, William of Rubruck walked to Cathay and back, and Marco Polo and his uncles did the same more lately, and there is on this earth no farther place than Cathay.”
The Krenk faced him once more and it seemed to Dietrich that those yellow eyes glowed with a peculiar intensity. But that was a trick of the shadows and the candlelight. “No farther place on this earth,” the creature said, “but there are other earths.”
“Indeed there may be, but the journey there is no natural journey.”
The Krenk, always wooden in expression, seemed to stiffen the more. “You … know of such journeys—question.”
The Heinzelmaannchen had yet to master expression. The Kratzer had told Dietrich that Krenkish languages employed rhythm rather than tone to indicate humor or query or irony. Thus, Dietrich could not be certain that he had heard hope in the machine’s translation.
“The journey to Heaven…” Dietrich suggested, to be sure he understood.
The Krenk pointed skyward. “‘Heaven’ is up there—question.”
“Ja. Beyond the firmament of the fixed stars, beyond even the crystalline orb or the prime mobile, the unmoving empyrean Heaven. But, the journey is made by our inner selves.”
“How strange that you would know this. How say you ‘all-that-is’: earth, stars, all—question.”
“‘The world.’ ‘Kosmos’.”
“Then, hear. The kosmos is indeed curved and the stars and … I must say, ‘families of stars,’ are embedded within it, as in a fluid. But in—another—direction, neither width nor breadth nor height, lies the other side of the firmament, which we liken to a membrane, or skin.”
“A tent,” Dietrich suggested; but he had to explain “tent,” as the Heinzelmaannchen had never seen one named.
The Krenk said, “Natural philosophy progresses differently in different arts, and perhaps your people have mastered the ‘other world’ while remaining… simple in other ways.” It looked again out the window. “Could salvation be possible for us…”
The last comment, Dietrich suspected, had not been intended for him to hear. “It is possible for everyone,” he said cautiously.

What in most other books would be played as a humorous misunderstanding is, in Eifelheim, deadly earnest. (Another point I love is how the priest grows alarmed when he realises, from his point of view, the Krenken describing their journey away from their home dimension is not unlike the story of Satan being ejected from heaven.) As the novel goes on, and Dietrich speaks to them further of God, more misunderstandings accrue; “You must introduce me to this friend of yours, God,” one says, to which Dietrich replies, “I will.” The notion of kindness and brotherhood among men is alien to them; but when Dietrich tries to explain that Jesus came from heaven, and then went away, and will return one day, the Krenken naturally speculate that he was an interstellar traveller like themselves – and that if his return is imminent, he may be able to help them. Again: in any other book this would probably be played for laughs. But Flynn humanises the poor, stranded, dying Krenken so well that their disappointment when Jesus fails to materialise at a religious feast is genuinely sad, and the misunderstanding is overall a minor plot point that only serves to illustrate how well Flynn paints every fraught moment of this strange, ongoing first contact.

We have a habit of thinking about the Middle Ages – if we think about them at all – as a miserable, muddy life of toil and poverty, nothing more than hacking potatoes out of the ground before dying in a hovel. But Flynn paints a portrait of a rich and beautiful society of festivals and customs, friendships and love, education and philosophy. We also have a habit – which I’ve mentioned before by way of William Gibson – of assuming that our own civilisation is the peak of intelligence and all past ages were simple at best and stupid at worst; that even their well-educated men were well-meaning yet ill-informed hicks good for nothing more than our own amusement. But the people of Oberhochwold – even aside from the highly-educated scholar-priest Dietrich – have a deep and complex society, an awareness of the world around them, and are far from fools. They are witty. They have deep conversations. When first confronted with the Krenken, they evaluate, speculate, and cotton on to far more than we might expect them to. They are smart enough to keep some of what they have cottoned onto to themselves. The characters are not crude superstitious stereotypes, but richly drawn men and women who are as wise as you or I. Dietrich in particular, with his classical education on everything from theology to philosophy to medicine, is certainly more intelligent than me, a feeling I also have when reading about Stephen Maturin. Manfred, the village’s local lord, is not a cruel or spoilt scion of the gentry but a sensitive and thoughtful man who genuinely cares about the people he has a responsibility for. Max, his chief man-at-arms, is a well-travelled and shrewd Swiss mercenary who is one of the first to encounter the Krenken and immediately discerns that the innocuous sticks they carry at their belts are sophisticated weapons.

This ties into another accomplishment of Eifelheim as a first contact story: the cultural exchange is not one-sided. It is not a story about the Krenken introducing the humans to wondrous new technology, or a story about the humble, down-to-earth villagers introducing the Krenken to a more virtuous way of simple living. Ideas and philosophies are exchanged equally between both sides; friendships are formed in which each side respects the differences of the other. The Krenken themselves have factions and individual personalities. The co-operation that develops between human and Krenken – particularly during the brutally difficult circumstances in the novel’s third act – is genuinely touching. The conclusion of Dietrich’s story in Eifelheim is wonderfully bittersweet, capped off with a scene in the modern-day frame story which is equally lovely, and all of it very thoroughly earned.

There’s inevitably a strong thread of Christianity running through this novel. I’m not a religious man, but Eifelheim – and the character of Father Dietrich in particular – represents the very best virtues of what Christianity is supposed to be: charity, kindness, selflessness, brotherhood, succour to strangers, love for all men – or, in this case, love for any living creature. It’s the kind of science fiction novel I think a Christian reader would greatly enjoy, though you by no means need to be a believer to enjoy it, or to find it inspiring and affirming. It’s ultimately a deeply poignant, touching and moving novel which explores life, death, empathy and acceptance. It feels crazy to say that about a sci-fi novel about a bunch of alien grasshoppers crash-landing in medieval Germany, but there you go: that’s just how good Eifelheim is. I can’t recommend it unreservedly – it’s a heavy and often difficult read – but I found it exceptionally rewarding, and one of those books that will stick around in my memory for a long time.