Medieval Europe meets aliens from another planet in Michael Flynn’s brilliant and intense
There was nothing like the Germany of the 1300s - wine, women, song, manorialism, the Black Death, quantum physics, grasshopper-looking aliens being received into the Church and baptized...those were the days! Flynn’s novel moves back and forth between the present, where mathematical historian Tom Schwoerin is trying to puzzle out why Eifelheim no longer exists and no one else has settled there for 700 years, and the past - the life and times of the devout man of the cloth, Pastor Dietrich, when the town of Eifelheim was known as Oberhochwald. At times, such as when the book gets into physics and mentions quantized red shifts, the plot drags a bit, but on the whole, this is made up for by the rest of the book, especially the scenes of interaction between the Kranken (the aliens) and Dietrich, and the religious conversion of some of the aliens, like the one renamed Johan von Sterne, or “John of the Stars.”
Philosophers were the scientists of the day. While people were still burned at the stake for committing heresies, logic, mathematics, and reason were much the vogue. There was no contradiction seen by many in being both a man of religion and of philosophy. Consequently, though the aliens that crash-land in the woods surrounding Eifelheim look demonic to Dietrich and other people of the town, the pastor reasons that they are mortal and like us in other ways as well. Ergo, they need all of the help and charity that he, the Lord of the High Wood Herr Manfred von Hochwald, and the other townsfolk can supply. Some of the townspeople never get used to the Kranken and their strange appearance and customs, even when they assist during an outbreak of the Black Death, but they come to be accepted and respected by Manfred and others.
When Dietrich and Brother Joachim, a Franciscan monk, are speaking to the congregation about the Krenken for the first time, Joachim seems like he’s going to be totally against the idea of treating the Krenken with charity and kindness, thinking them to be demons, but then he says:
“Show these beings what a Christian is,” Joachim continued. “Welcome them
into your hearths, for they are cold. Give them bread, for they are hungry. Comfort
them, for they are far from home. Thus inspired by our example, they will repent and be saved.”
When I read this passage, I thought about how people might respond today if aliens landed. Would we be as accepting of them and willing to treat them with charity and as if they were fellow Christians, like Dietrich and Joachim? Sorry to say it, but I doubt it - they’d likely meet the same sort of fate it’s believed by some that the Roswell aliens met (if there were any) - being dissected and studied by scientists.
Eifelheim is a novel that anyone who likes science fiction should enjoy. It reminded me at times of Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, in that it deals with roughly the same historical time period and the Black Death. Flynn’s book has aliens in it, though, while Willis’s has people who travel back into time. Both are well worth reading. A previous winner of the Robert A Heinlein Award for his novel The Wreck of the Stars, Michael Flynn has again written a gem with Eifelheim.