I normally don’t do book reviews of fiction on my site. For one I don’t have the critical skills to write reviews of fiction. A book I just finished though deserves the exception. As a life long lover of science fiction, a genre that in some ways has shaped my life, I of course always love to find a great SF book.
Seldom though do the worlds of SF and Christianity meet and often when they do it is in a condescending manner. There are few books on the level of "A Canticle for Leibowitz"
that intersect religion and SF. Now I don’t require my SF reading to be overtly religious. I require it to be good SF, but it is always nice when you read a novel that is both great and also takes seriously the Catholicism of some of its characters.
One such novel is Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. When I first read a review of this book at the Claw of the Conciliator I was quite intrigued and so ordered it.
The novel has two storylines taking place in the present and in a small German village, Eifelheim, during the Avignon Papacy. Thrown into the mix is a group of aliens who have crashed in the Black Forest. Father Dietrich the village priest and his and the villages interaction with the aliens provides the major plot line of the book. What is so refreshing about this book is that Father Dietrich is not cast as the idiot fundamentalist that reacts negatively to the presence of the aliens. Instead he is quite positively portrayed and his interaction with the aliens is enhanced both by his faith and theology. At the same time he doesn’t make the mistake of making Father Dietrich too advanced for his time and you see the priest grapling with understanding the aliens and their technology and putting it into terms and concepts he can grasp.
The characters and the historical background are quite believable. I really got the feel of living in a village in medieval and the reaction of the village to these circumstances seems quite plausible. I only had a couple of minor quibbles with some of the theology in the book, but these are minor indeed and in no way distract from the plot. For the most part though it is obvious that the author made great pains to get things right. One part though that he got wrong was a discussion of the Holy Office. The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition was not established until 1542 in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation which is long after the year 1348 where most of the book occurs. Though in the parallel storyline in the present the characters do discuss the Inquisition and there is a discussion of the myths surrounding it. The mention of the Holy Office (which it was renamed in 1908) though is not really an important plot point in the book. At the end of the book he does discuss how some of the historical events mentioned were compressed to fit the plot of the book, so maybe he did the same with the inquisition.
Regardless though Eifelheim stands totally on both its plot, characterization, and the quality of the writing. Mark Shea called it the "best fiction read I’ve had in years." I wouldn’t go that far, but I would place it highly and place it into the category of a book that I will most likely reread. Eifelheim was originally a novella written in 1986 and had received a Hugo award and his current and his book length version of it has been nominated for Best Novel Hugo Award, 2007.
Sci Fi Weekly recently interviewed Michael Flynn about this novel and the interview is quite interesting in that his view of medieval times changed with his research.
Did your research for Eifelheim change your perspective about the Middle Ages?
Flynn: When I started writing Eifelheim, I had the real stereotyped version of what the Middle Ages was like. But the more I read about it, the more it became evident that it was not like that at all. I began to wonder if people who put gargoyles on their cathedrals would be all that frightened of aliens. They routinely imagined that there were humans who had no head but had a giant eye in their stomach, or humans who had one huge foot and hopped around, or creatures who were half human and half horse. So here’s some [aliens who look like] giant grasshoppers. Some [characters] panic and are frightened. But I wondered just how alien they would seem to people who routinely imagined alien creatures.
To this day, people take the term "medieval" to mean backward and ignorant, but it wasn’t that way. That came about because of snooty people, first in the Renaissance but mostly during the Enlightenment, actively and deliberately denigrating the era that came before them—because, having rediscovered ancient Greece and ancient Rome’s literature, they had to pretend that nothing had happened between ancient Rome and ancient Greece and themselves. And so the Middle Ages became a time of darkness.
Your protagonist, the village priest, is extremely rational and logical. Aren’t medieval clergymen, as well as the rest of the Christian world at that time, supposed to be unscientific?
Flynn: The Middle Ages was an age of reason … and yet we’ve been taught to think of it as an age of superstition. It probably glorified reason far more than the Age of Reason. The medievals invented the university, with a standard curriculum, courses of study, degrees and, of course, funny hats.
The curriculum that was taught consisted almost entirely of reason, logic and natural philosophy—or, as we’d say, science. They didn’t teach humanities, they didn’t teach the arts, they taught essentially logical reasoning and natural philosophy. If you wanted to be a doctor of theology, a churchman, you had to first go through a course in science and thinking.
This was an era where the most celebrated theologian of all time was Thomas Aquinas, who dared to apply logic and reason to the study of theology. In fact, theology is the application of logic and reason to religious questions. They must have elevated reason to a pretty high pedestal if they were willing to subject their own religion to it.
In the Middle Ages, they first learned how to apply mathematics to scientific questions. After the time of the story, Nicholas Oresme, who was mentioned briefly in passing, was able to prove the mean speed theorem in physics using principles of Euclidean geometry, which marks the first time a theory had been proven by using mathematics, as opposed to us[ing] mathematics to describe the angle of refraction or to do surveying.
The interviewer obviously had the same stereotype that Mr. Flynn use to hold. In fact the interviewer said he had to look up words he didn’t understand like "Pre dieu."
Reading the interview I realized that I had previously read a book that Michael Flynn was a coauthor of – Fallen Angels. Fallen Angels was written by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle & Michael Flynn and while it isn’t in the class of Eifelheim I found it to be a good read and quite a fun book that had a funny aside about the effects of stopping global warming. Fallen Angels is one of the one available for free by Baen Books on their site.