Monday, October 15, 2007

Historical Fiction, with Space Aliens

After reading the reviews at Curt Jester and Darwin Catholic, I picked up a copy of Michael Flynn's novel Eifelheim. It's the first science fiction I've read in years, and better than I expected.

The premise is simple: space aliens make first contact with Earth after shipwrecking near a remote German village. In the fourteenth century.

Flynn depicts with talent the political, religious, and intellectual ferment of the times. The main character is an intellectual parish priest named Father Dietrich. He is in hiding, having been a member of the fraticelli, the radical and violent Franciscan sect that strived for the abolition of property. Educated at the University of Paris, he is well-attuned to the philosophical thought that became foundational for the natural sciences.

Enter the extraterrestrials.

The Krenken are an insect-like race the German villagers compare to grasshoppers. Shipwrecked after some unrevealed technical malfunction in their ship, their appearance provokes fears they are demonic visitors. Father Dietrich, though as confused as anyone else, uses a bit of scholastic logic to deduce they are in fact natural creatures comparable to the dog-headed men and headless anthropoids reputed to live in the antipodes. In a wry inversion of sci-fi standbys, the limitations of medieval knowledge of the world provide grounds for acceptance instead of mob violence. It recalls the irony of Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz, in which monks become the only custodians of scientific knowledge after a nuclear catastrophe incites anti-intellectual obscurantism.

Michael Flynn shows an immense capacity for intellectual sympathy through his priest character's attempts to fit advanced scientific knowledge into the categories familiar to him. Flynn makes the medieval mind come alive, while suggesting the strangeness of our own times. The aliens strain to make their knowledge intelligible as Father Dietrich suggests Latinate or Greek neologisms to describe concepts well-familiar to the modern reader. Scientific concepts we take for granted, like protein, bacteria, and gravity, take on a marvelous appearance when seen through the eyes of an intelligent man living in a less advanced age. The priest's arguments with the aliens are amusing in their defense of fourteenth-century cosmology, but too honest and sophisticated to disdain.

While considerably hindered in scientific argument, Father Dietrich actually wins some of the religious disputes. His Christian faith, though explained through a poorly translating computer, gains a few adherents among the stranded aliens. The society of the Krenken is never elucidated, but it seems to be a hierarchical culture based on violent strength and a brutally Darwinian survival of the fittest. The lowest-ranked Krenken find Christian love and self-sacrifice convincing. Despite its alienness, Christianity provides them a welcome relief from their overbearing superiors.

Of course Michael Flynn must take poetic liberties with history. For the most part, they work to the good. However, he makes a few stumbles. At one point he references the ad orientem orientation of the Christian liturgy as a new phenomenon replacing the versus populum, which certainly doesn't correspond to what liturgical history I know. Further, he presents William of Ockham as a proponent of a proto-Lockean revolutionary natural rights theory that I don't think came into its own until the sixteenth century. Though some anachronisms are necessary to such a work, these two instances in particular bothered me.

Flynn's work is in many ways a defense of the medieval against contemporary caricatures. Most of the time this defense is well-done and subtle. I think it superior to Umberto Eco's In the Name of the Rose, which rested on the comical premise that a monk would hate laughter and comedy.

However, one crude apologetic for the Inquisition struck me as crude and not particularly relevant to its context.(It took place in one of the "present day" scenes that occasionally interrupts the historical fiction. In these scenes an historian seeks the reason Eifelheim remained abandoned through the centuries. As other reviewers note, these scenes don't gel well with the rest of the work.)

I have previously noted Michael Flynn's depiction of the excitement of scientific discovery in his fictionalized account of medieval science. If Eifelheim's imaginative sympathy and historical awareness are now typical of science fiction, I will have to look twice at the genre novels I happen upon.

1 comment:

Darwin said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

I forget if I'd mentioned it, but the versus populum mention about the liturgy struck me as rather jarring -- though it wouldn't surprise me if the author picked that up from some fairly recent book on the history of liturgy. I didn't catch the Ockham problem, but then, I confess I've read virtually no Ockham, so I guess I'm not in a good spot for that one.

This is actually the only SF of fantasy that I've read in a number of years -- other than a few specific authors that I keep up with. I'll definately have to take a look around at Flynn's other work, though. I was very impressed by Eifelheim.