Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
Review Summary: I highly recommend Eifelheim as a unique, fascinating, and unexpected offering in the genre.
I cannot say enough good things about Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim. Although it is a short novel, and split almost equally between the current time and the middle 1300’s, the characters and their stories in each timeline are compelling enough that one doesn’t begrudge a pause as the author changes gears, trading one type of discovery for another. “Discovery” may be a good word overall for this book, in fact, for its tone, and just for find the book itself.
Flynn’s characters, both medieval and modern, are real and believable – alien or human, the characters are plausible in a way that so many authors fail to accomplish. Father Dietrich’s character in particular is very well done, as an inspiring yet altogether human model of the behavior we would most like to see exhibited during any such first contact between such very different peoples. The choices the author made with this character could not have been better, and as the cornerstone of the entire novel this character performs superbly.
The plot is fairly straight-forward, but developed in a purposefully sparse and patchy manner, that is entirely realistic given the myriad problems the characters face in communicating; across species, across technological and philosophical gulfs (not just between alien and human, but between educated and uneducated humans as well), and especially across centuries… Enough is said that one feels that the novel is complete, and is satisfied with the results. Enough is left unsaid that one has plenty left to imagine, to fill in the gaps and think upon what conversations Dietrich may have had with his visitors and villagers alike, what motivations characters such as Hans and Manfred may have actually had that they were unable to fully express, or which have gone undocumented by the narration of the story.
Thematically, Flynn’s discussion of medieval philosophy and science is amazing – given his explanations of the fourteenth-century worldview, through the expressions of his characters – again, especially of Father Dietrich – I find it very easily believable that visitors from another world could have found enough common ground to communicate, at least given the right “ambassadors” for humankind. All of the Greek words (which I didn’t realize were Greek until reading this novel) were so obviously related to our common terms for scientific methods and modern gadgets that one realizes that the scientific language was already there – it was just humankind’s experience with the scientific methods and tools that was lacking.
Flynn’s discussion of Dietrich’s missionary efforts was also enlightening in a way that history lessons are not, and I could see for the first time what the allure of Christianity may hold for a pagan soul unused to such a worldview, in a manner that wasn’t cynical at all, but uplifting and humanitarian.
My only criticism of the novel would that I didn’t particularly care for what I consider to be the “melodrama” of the last half-page of the story, but I am definitely willing to overlook this given the overall excellence exhibited throughout the first 311 pages. I highly recommend Eifelheim as a unique, fascinating, and unexpected offering in the genre.