My life in outer space

Eifelheim – Michael Flynn (2006)

Eifelheim

‘IT IS A TIME OF WONDERS IN THE SHADOW OF THE PLAGUE

Centuries ago, one small town in Germany disappeared and was never resettled. Tom, a historian, and his theoretical physicist girlfriend, Sharon, become interested. By all logic, the town should have survived. What’s so special about Eifelheim?

Father Dietrich is the village priest of Eifelheim in the year 1348, when the Black Death is gathering strength. To his astonishment, Dietrich makes first contact between humanity and an alien race from a distant star, when their ship crashes in the nearby forest. Flynn gives us the full richness and strangeness of medieval life, as well as some terrific aliens.’

Blurb from the 2009 Tor paperback edition

Very deserving of its award status, Eifelheim is a novel which brings alive day to day activities in a German village in 1348, mainly through the eyes of Father Dietrich, an intelligent deep-thinking priest whose life and worldview are thrown into turmoil when aliens (whom some of the villagers take to be demons) crashland in the local Herr’s woods.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Tom is trying to discover why Eifelheim doesn’t fit his mathematical model of population centres. According to all his theories, the village, although depopulated in the late 1300s, should have been resettled. His long term girlfriend Sharon, meanwhile, has been making discoveries of her own regarding the decreasing rate of the speed of light.
The reaction of her immediate superiors in the world of Academia is one of shock, since Sharon – in challenging one of the basic tenets of science, i.e. the constancy of the speed of light – is committing heresy.
One of the beauties of this novel is that Flynn examines both science and religion – or rather, the social frameworks in which science and religion exist.
One of the great ironies at the heart of ‘Eifelheim’ is that the aliens come to believe that the Christian God is an actual being who will ‘enflesh’ himself in order to return to Earth. They therefore nurture the idea that God will be able to help them repair their ship and go home, which, translated as ‘taken to the heavens’ prompts both Father Dietrich and his Franciscan assistant Joachim, to assume that the aliens accept the basic concept of Christianity.
The local Herr – who originally hoped that the creatures would leave his woods and depart – has a change of heart when he realises that they have superior weapons and may be able to manufacture ‘pot de fur’ (or gunpowder) with which he would be able to rid the region of a troublesome robber baron and his gang of bad lads.
Inexorably the plague (or ‘the pest’ as it is known to the villagers) is heading toward the area. Although the alien metabolism of the visitors is immune, they have their own problems, since a specific protein is lacking from their diet and they are slowly dying.
One might possibly have liked to have seen more of the modern day sequences with perhaps an ironic focus on some of our contemporary beliefs and superstitions, but that is being churlish. ‘Eifelheim’ is an entertaining and educational experience based loosely on historical records and a local legend. Flynn does confess in the afterword that some artistic licence has been taken with the actual historical chronology, but I am sure readers will forgive him for that.

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