Eifelheim, Michael Flynn

Tor, 2006, 320 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-30096-6

Michael Flynn is a very, very smart man. Perhaps too smart for us, in fact.

One of his early success in the Science-fiction genre was a novella called “Eifelheim”, a 1986 story about two modern scientists deducing an alien visit in Black Plague-era Germany from historical evidence. “Eifelhem” earned a few bravos from Analog readers and went on to be nominated for a Hugo Award. Now, twenty years later, Flynn has turned the novella into a much longer novel.

A much, much longer novel.

On one hand, it not possible to just dismiss Eifelheim-the-expanded-story. Flynn has obviously done his research, and the novel’s most distinctive trait is how it really manages to describe life in Dark-Ages rural Germany. Even before the alien’s arrival, Flynn painstakingly describes the true state of society and technology at the time and how the characters relate to each other. This in itself isn’t what you’d expect: Flynn overturns a number of commonly-held beliefs in what the Middle Ages were like, and the result is a rich strain of historical fiction describing a way of life that is far more alien than anything we can imagine on other planets.

When the aliens land (for them, a sad case of being broken down somewhere in the galactic boondocks), the culture clash is profound, though maybe not as much as you would expect: Flynn’s protagonist, a scholar named Dietrich, is instrumental in smoothing out the problems between the stranded aliens and the superstitious villagers. As the alien work to repair their spaceship, Dietrich maintains the peace even as other powerful human entities start paying attention to what’s happening in the small village… and that’s without counting on the ever-popular black plague.

Meanwhile, in a “Now” section more or less reprinted from the original novella, a couple of scientists uncover traces of the alien presence through historical records, allowing one of them to make a fundamental breakthrough in theoretical physics.

I have said that this is a novel from a smart man, but it bears repeating. Looking at the mass of research that has been crammed into Eifelheim, one can’t help but feel overwhelmed. An entirely different alien race, plus historical fiction, plus modern fiction about the inner working of science? Gee, Flynn must be not just be smart, but a bit of a masochist. The details, the details…

So I do feel like a chump for thinking that the entire novel is a bit unnecessary. Even though the “Now” segments are saddled with an annoying voice-of-God narration that reminded of Flynn’s insufferable The Wreck of the River of Stars, I found them more interesting than the medieval bulk of the book. A sufficiently determined reader could chapter-skip the historical chapters and still get a satisfying story. At times, if you’re not overly fascinated by medieval history, Eifelheim feels like show-off fiction, like an accumulation of trivia designed to make you go “wow!” in amazement.

It makes up for a curiously fragmented reading experience. I might had had a different reaction had I encountered Eifelheim in the wild, but this has become, almost against everyone’s expectations, a Hugo-nominated novel against much-lauded competition. Comparisons between it and the other nominees are inevitable, and not necessarily flattering: Of the five novels in the running, Eifelheim feels like the slowest, the least accessible and the least fun.

But I suspect that this is as much a reflection of my own reading tastes (not necessarily partial to historical fiction) than any serious problem with the novel itself. Looking belatedly at the other reviews around the web, I see that many reviewers liked the medieval plot and dismissed the modern subplot. Oh well. I’ve always considered Flynn an uneven writer, capable of the best and the dullest. Eifelheim is no exception.

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