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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn

Eifelheim, (New York, New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2006) by Michael Flynn, was a nominee for the Hugo Award in 2007. I try to keep up at least a nodding acquaintance with some of the Hugo and Nebula Award books, so I read Eifelheim, and I'm glad I did.

The Wikipedia article on the book is here. I confess -- I wrote a little of the article.

I didn't really expect to run into two important theological questions in Eifelheim, but I did. Flynn sets much of the book in Germany of the 1300s. That seems like a strange setting for a science fiction novel, but the reason so much of the book is set there is because it's about aliens crashing to earth at that time and place.

Flynn hangs two interesting theological questions on the encounter between aliens and medieval Germany. The first is, "Where is God when things go badly?" (The plague is one thing that goes badly, in this book. See here for another post, quoting Eifelheim, and also quoting an even more celebrated science fiction work, on this question.) The second question is, "Can aliens be converted to Christianity?" Flynn's answer is "yes." Some of the aliens become believers. Some of the humans think that this is monstrous, and some think that these conversions are miracles of God.

There are some more typical science fiction matters in the book. One of these is communication between species. The aliens don't look much like humans, and they don't speak as humans do. So Flynn considers communication from both technical and cultural angles. There are twenty-first century scientists in the book, and there are considerations of cosmology, and of historical research, and they are interesting. (In case you are wondering how the 1300s and the twenty-first century get together, there is time travel. Actually, I think that the story could have been told in just the 1300s, with no significant loss.)

To me, the real meat of the book is Flynn's portrayal of a German village, set in the Black Forest, in the 1300s. He seems to have done his homework. The various characters, peasants, soldiers, Lord, and priests, ring true. Especially, their religion rings true. As Flynn put it:
I have tried to depict the milieu of the mid-fourteenth century Rhineland as accurately as possible, but that is difficult enough to do for early twenty first-century America, let alone a time and place where the worldview was so different from our own categories of thought.
For one thing, they took Christianity seriously; in many ways, more seriously than modern Bible-thumpers. At the same time, they took it more matter-of-factly. (p. 315, "Historical Notes.") Flynn certainly took Christianity seriously in this book.

It was a good read, and, as I have said, it considered two deep, and interesting, theological questions. I'm sorry that it didn't win the Hugo.

See here for a post on extraterrestrial religion.

Thanks for reading.


Rob Rumfelt said...

Darn you, Martin! I've already got enough things to read without you bringing more interesting books to my attention!

Just finished Ann Rice's "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," which was excellent. Getting ready to begin C.S. Lewis' "Space Trilogy" next.

There seem to be more books using medieval viewpoints to explore serious themes. "Books and Culture Christian Review" recently had an article on Lewis and his use of medieval thought in his own works. Hence the reason I'm beginning "Space Trilogy."

I think one reason the people then took Christianity more seriously was because it was more thoroughly integrated into their daily lives. Today's secularized world tends to force us to compartmentalize our religious beliefs against the rest of our day to day activities. I try to be aware of that.

Thanks for yet another book to add to my list!


Martin LaBar said...

Sorry, Rob.

I've never read Ann Rice.

I'd put Lewis ahead of Eifelheim, because it's Lewis, because it's classic, and because Eifelheim is longer than _Out of the Silent Planet_.

Connie Willis's _Doomsday Book_ won both the Hugo and the Nebula, as I recall. It's about time travel to the middle ages, and also about the question of why there's evil in the world, and a God.

Thanks for your comment.

Rob Rumfelt said...

You should read "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt." Her sequel, "Road to Cana," just came out. Her story of how she came back to the Lord is facinating.

Connie Willis. "Doomsday Book." Thanks, Martin. You've done it again!


Martin LaBar said...

I'll add Rice to my list of things to try.


David B. Ellis said...

One of the things I loved about EIFELHEIM was the way both christians and religious skeptics are both portrayed sympathetically---neither is caricatured or villianized.

That's all too rare in a book dealing with religious issues.

Loved the book. But for my money BLINDSIGHT should have won the Hugo. Fascinating, and somewhat disturbing, exploration of themes related to the nature of consciousness and personhood in the context of a first-contact situation.

And available as a free etext from the author (Peter Watts) website.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. That was my impression of _Eifelheim_, too, which, as you say, is all too rare. I hadn't heard of _Blindsight_.