Eifelheim by Michael Flynn is a masterpiece of historical science fiction (you read that right) and it offers the best picture of the Middle Ages I think you’ll ever read.
This book has already gotten its lauds, but I feel it is not read enough. If you want thoughtful sci-fi, this is it. It you want clearly intensive and smart research, this book demonstrates it. If you want an excellently structured narrative, this one manages to split its plot by time and geography in a way I envy. If you like reading, you should read Eifelheim.
Eifelheim tells the story of the titular Medieval German village. Well, it tells the tale of Teufelheim, which becomes known later as Eifelheim. We see this world from the eyes of its village priest, a man with his brutal past. The terror of the Black Plague is a growing threat, but still a distant one as life goes on.
And then aliens crash nearby.
Meanwhile, the modern couple Tom and Sharon whittle away at their respective academic pursuits. Tom is a mathematical historian and Sharon is a cosmologist. Academia, everybody! (A swiftly vanishing version of it, since modern grad students in academic disciplines are actually selling themselves into bondage.) Their relationship is not without its bumps, many of them spawning from the contrast between their fields of study as well as that fact that other people are difficult.
But their two very different spheres intersect in the ruins of Eifelheim.
I adore how this book depicts medieval life. It feels real. Medieval people get depicted as fools and barbarians all the time, incapable of higher thought, living horrifically oppressed lives. Medieval life was hard, often short, and certainly more brutal then we moderns can imagine, but it was still a life lived by people. Smart, stupid, kind, cruel, intellectual, pragmatic, and any combination of those and more—medieval people were people, too, with many of the same needs and wants as we modern men and women. This book reflects that.
It also does an amazing job of depicting feudal communities as they actually were, not some insane Marxist-modernist pipe dream of oppression. A lot of research went into this book. If you are at all interested in actual medieval life, I really recommend this novel. I think anyone out there who is involved in the SCA will love it.
One of the cool things in this book is that the alien society bears certain parallels to medieval society that out point-of-view priest character understands pretty clearly. I liked joining him as he sorted out how exactly the alien society worked.
Also, it puts paid to the ridiculousness that alien visitors would somehow destroy the Catholic Church by the fact of their mere existence. Catholic medieval intellectuals were contemplating alien intelligence long before the Industrial Age. Because they understood cosmology in a different way for reasons backed up by the observations they were capable of making (e.g. stellar parallax), they simply thought of dogheads and monopods as people from a very distant land. Do we really regard space aliens any differently? Eifelheim takes all that intellectual pondering of long ago and uses it for its plot.
Tom and Sharon’s story is a small part of the novel, but a necessary one, because this is a book about connection. Their part means that everything that happened in the past means something to the future. If you read the book, you’ll keep seeing that theme of connection over and over again. This is not space battle sci-fi book (don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of those) but a relational one.
Here’s some of what you’re in for with Eifelheim:
The ability to cross space doesn’t make anyone more ethical, any more than the ability to cross the oceans made the Europeans any more ethical than the Indians.
“This peculiar ability of yours only shows how different we are”
“Our peculiar ability?”
“I have no word for it. To accomplish one thing by doing many different thing together. Each man sings now different words to different tunes, yet they blend in ways strange but pleasing to our ways. When you and your brother sang to welcome us on your Kermis, the pilgrims could speak of nothing else for days.”
Special bonus points to the cameo of William of Ockham. Not enough sci-fi has done enough with his vanishing from history.
I can’t recommend Eifelheim enough. Pick it up here.