Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Michael Flynn: Eifelheim

If any of my readers are considering a career as an Internet troll, they should first familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations. That's right: as in any respectable profession, there are standards and practices to trolling through forums and comment threads. The first rule of trolling is this: if at any moment you find yourself sparring with a man called "Ye Olde Statistician," run. Flee the scene and burn your bridges. You are profoundly outmatched.

Imagine if Bruce Wayne's alter-ego (for those of you who sprang from the womb as fully grown adults, that would be Batman) had an alter-ego of its own, even more shadowy and lethal. Meet Michael Flynn: statistician by day, well-regarded science-fiction author by night, and veteran troll-hunter in the twilight hours. I first encountered "Ye Olde Statistician" deploying his arsenal of historical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge against a horde of angry trolls on a theology blog. I decided to look for more of his posts online, and that's when I discovered he was a published author.

"Eifelheim" was first published in 1987 as a novella, focusing on a pair of scientists who discover the startling truth about the medieval German village called Eifelheim, which had mysteriously disappeared at some point in the late fourteenth century. From this beginning came the novel, published in 2006. In addition to the original scenes set in the present day, Flynn wrote a parallel narrative set in medieval Eifelheim itself. It is in these sections that we find the meat of the story, and Flynn's masterful command of medieval history.

For any given literary genre, authors can take either a "hard" or "soft" approach. The more common "soft" approach is to treat genre as a gimmick, with loose rules and less intensive world-building, but (one hopes) with a correspondingly greater emphasis on narrative and character. Many historical fiction novels, for instance, resort to the merest and most superficial elements to establish their cultural setting, even as they permit pretty grotesque historical anachronisms. This isn't always a bad thing. The anachronisms may serve to bridge the gap between another culture and our own, and reduces the effort necessary for readers' comprehension.

On the other hand, a "hard" approach -- which aims for absolute fidelity to the depicted world -- requires much more rigorous research and world-building on the part of the author, and much more careful reading on the part of the audience. Yet if these initial obstacles can be overcome, the "hard" approach offers considerably greater rewards, because it presents us with a truly distinct 'Other': a genuinely alien planet on which would we be utterly not at home, even if that planet were Earth.

Such is the case with Eifelheim. By all appearances it is (spoiler warning) a straightforward science-fiction tale of first contact, introducing us to a race of aliens that have crash-landed in the backwoods of medieval Germany. Yet, as the novel goes on, there is a point of dawning realization: we cannot tell whether we have more in common with the alien race or with the medieval Europeans. The very vocabulary of the Middles Ages is so foreign to us, it might as well be another language. We empathize with the aliens, as they try to communicate scientific concepts in medieval jargon. Flynn makes it clear that this is not a defect of the medieval mind: there simply was no point for such words, as the ideas themselves had not yet been developed.

The novel's fidelity to the medieval mind and culture is truly astonishing, and its value cannot be overstated. The Middle Ages are quite possibly the least understood period in world history among the general public. Eifelheim provides an incalculable public service (in addition to the story itself) by treating the period with realism and respect. The main character in the medieval scenes is Father Dietrich, the Paris-trained priest who is well versed in theology, philosophy, and all manner of sciences. His personal and intellectual struggles throughout the book are phenomenally well-depicted, as are the interactions (informed by medieval social structure) between the various characters. Dietrich's initial doubts regarding the rationality (what we might call the "humanity") of the aliens is particularly well done, as the question is asked and answered purely through medieval methods.

There is not much more to be said regarding this book, if only because it is so incredibly dense with content. The story itself is rather cursory, alternating between a science-fiction mystery on the one hand and a historical-fiction drama on the other. But in this sort of work the story is simply the hook for everything else: in most instances for the characters, but in this case particularly for the setting. Eifelheim is one of the best and purest treatments of medieval culture I have ever read, and it has my highest recommendation.

To purchase, check out Amazon.com:

Michael Flynn also maintains a blog at The TOF Spot. It is well worth checking out.
This review was cross-posted on my theology blog, A Sacramental World.

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