Spawn of Mars
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Ages as Bright as Any
Michael Flynn's Eifelheim
Saturday, June 21, 2008 9:37 pm
In seeking science fiction that is neither left-wing nor Christophobic, I would have thought the worst place to look would be in a novel about aliens crashing in a medieval German town. O! the opportunities to condemn the superstitious villainies of the Dark Ages! Beleaguered aliens — so like ourselves in their adherence to Science! — against the base and ignorant Catholicism of dim-witted villagers! Goodness me, the cliches write themselves.

Eifelheim is absolutely nothing like that. This is a work that depicts medieval Catholics with sympathy, not by supposing them to be unwashed Episcopalians who would vote Democratic if only they could, but by eschewing condescension and hatred — and, more to the point, by depicting the faithful Catholics as fully rational.

In trying to understand the alien Krenken, Pastor Deitrich does not struggle to accommodate his religion and his science. He doesn't overcome any "provincial" shortcomings nor abandon his beliefs. Rather, he quite intelligently employs the scholarship of his age — secular and religious — to explain the Krenken. His categories may be medieval and Catholic, but they are rational. Put simply, Dietrich is not forced into some sort of proto-Enlightenment. He remains medieval. Best of all, his understandings are never made to seem pitiful for being insufficiently post-Einsteinian.

So Eiefelheim plays upon the actual strengths — intellectual and technical — of the Middle Ages. Does that mean we get an apology for the Middle Ages, a novel of Medieval Boosterism? No. But we are spared any nonsense about "Dark" Ages. Although the villagers are, quite properly, depicted as 14th-century people, they are also depicted as human beings, fearful and wise.

And wonder of wonders, Christianity itself is presented well — not as a generic stand-in for Belief in God but as a precisely dogmatic view of things. I'll give you two significant examples of this.

First: The fervent, hard-line Franciscan Joachim, who like others of the villagers believes the Krenken to be demons and, at first, seems like he's going to be the stock Intolerant Bigot, instead proclaims: "Show these beings what a Christian is. 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... Imprisoned in flesh, they can wield no demonic powers. Christ is all-powerful. The goodness of Christ is all-powerful... Now we may see that it will triumph over Hell itself!" And Joachim is as good as his word.

Second: Much as Dietrich uses his categories to understand the Krenken Science, the Krenken use theirs to understand Dietrich's Christian Faith. Of course, much as Dietrich's categories fail him a bit, the Krenken's fail them a bit; yet as time goes on, many of the Krenken are actually converted and baptized! Not frivolously, either, but — as Joachim had hoped — in reaction to the Christianity of Dietrich and the villagers. Yes, the baptized Krenken have their moments of doubt (Eifelheim is no more a booster for Christianity than it is for the Middle Ages), but they remain faithful — even unto their personal detriment.

Now, on top of its respect for and intelligent engagement with medieval Catholicism, Eifelheim is simply a beautiful story. As science fiction it is sound, if a little unremarkable. That is, don't come to it expecting any unprecedented ideas about aliens or interstellar travel. But as a story it is beautiful. It is not about aliens but about a medieval village confronted with non-human souls, and there are episodes and events and scenes and characters that are great and plentiful and excellently arranged. Even granting that I am a soft touch, Eifelheim moved me. I can't recommend it enough.

P.S. I'm currently deep into Flynn's novel The Wreck of The River of Stars. Believe the hype: It's masterful. Read it — before or after Eifelheim, it doesn't matter. Gosh and damn, I've never been happier being an SF geek than in the past six months! And all it took was well-written SF that doesn't hate on my beliefs...
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