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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-765-30096-6

This is quite the story. Part science fiction, part historical fiction, it should appeal to readers of either genre. The “Now” portions were previously published separately in the Analog Science Fiction magazine. I reviewed Michael Flynn's In the Country of the Blind almost four years ago. Other than that, I'm not sure I've read anything else by Flynn, other than Fallen Angels, which he co-wrote with Larry Niven years ago.

So what's Eifelheim about? In the not-too-distant future, a physicist studying advanced cosmological concepts, is married to (or at least living and partnered with) a historian (actually, a cliologist—you'll have to read the book), who is using computer modeling techniques to study medieval German society and culture. He (the historian) discovers that one area, name of Eifelheim (which turns out to be a corruption of Teufelheim, or devil-home), was abandoned after an outbreak of the plague, but never resettled.

What could have caused this? Every other area is eventually resettled, if not in the exact same place, than somewhere in the vicinity. But for hundreds of years, this area has been scrupulously avoided. No one wants to live there.

When we read the historical parts of the book, we discover the truth; a group of aliens has crash-landed their “ship,” and need to fix it, if they're ever going to get back home. They become part of the local society to the degree that they can, and even though they are not even remotely human in their appearance, some of the locals, especially the priest and the feudal lord, accept them, and try to help them. Because of the isolated nature of the location, not too many outsiders encounter them, and so they remain a localized phenomenon.

What is interesting is how a historian, centuries later, can ferret out bits and pieces of what took place, and eventually begin to suspect the truth. One big coincidence which helps pull the story together is that the method of FTL (faster-than-light) travel the aliens must have used is the practical result of the same research the physicist partner is doing in the modern era. At one point, an illuminated manuscript turns out to be a diagram of a circuit the physicist has just been working on!

The finale takes us with the historian to a remote German forest, where an ancient grave is disinterred . . .

This is a great story, well conceived and written, even if the coincidences that make it work are a little difficult to accept. That this particular historian is partnered with just the right physicist at just the right time strains credulity. And why the presence of the aliens living in a remote medieval German village caused that area to be shunned for centuries after is also never quite adequately explained, as the aliens didn't really do anything particularly horrific during their stay. Still, recommended for all science fiction readers, especially those who also enjoy historical fiction, or historical settings.

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