Monday, August 24, 2015

Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn's Eifelheim is a nice twist on a first-contact story. The contact takes place when insectoid aliens traveling through string theory's seventh folded dimension get stranded on Earth in 1300s medieval Germany. They are a relatively small party, but they have just the right physical form to trigger everyone's prejudices about devils. Flynn does a great job of depicting a highly religious society with a few educated (for the time) leaders.
Unfortunately for the Germans trying to figure out whether to welcome or vilify their visitors, the plague is sweeping through Europe, and it's going to kill most of them. The scenes with the survivors taking care of their loved ones are touching and gruesome. Meanwhile, the aliens are wasting away because earth's biota is missing an essential protein for them. "They eat their fill, but are not nourished".
In a parallel stream, a pair of scientist (living together, but drifting apart) are searching for answers that intersect this distant past. Sharon is trying to piece together a grand-unified theory to explain anomalous measurements, and being inspired by random phrases uttered by Tom. Tom is a sociologist tring to figure out why Eifelheim, an obscure German hill town, was never resettled after the plagues. Of course there are enough clues in obscure historical records to inspire a theory.
Of course many of the villagers are simple superstitious peasants, but Dietrich, their Pastor was educated in Paris and Vienna, and has a more open mind. Dietrich struggles to convince the villagers and the manorial lord that the visitors are "men" by the meaning of the Bible, rather than devils, and then works to convert the visitors to his faith. He has some small successes; apparently the aliens don't recognize superstition when they see it. The linguistic difficulties are enough that it's not always clear when he is speaking literally or metaphorically. Similar issues impede his understanding of the science they understand--both biology to explain the diseases afflicting both parties and astronomy.
The characters are compelling, the science is a plausible stretch, the historicism is infecting, and their travails are affecting. Dietrich treats visiting Jews (escaping from pogroms and rabble afraid that they may have brought the plague, intentionally or not) the same as he does the visitors; all are "men" in God's sight are worthy of respect and an attempt to convince them to act as their best instincts direct them. The final scene, in modern times, left tears in my eyes.