Michael Flynn is one of those rare sci-fi authors whose sci-fi stories are based profoundly in the things that make us human rather than pretentious imaginations that either make us forget that we are human, or else look forward to the day when, with our fantastic grasp and use of Science, we will have transformed ourselves into something “post-human.” That is, he writes science fiction that doesn’t slight the science but which also doesn’t let the science gobble up the human. He writes science fiction where the science doesn’t drive, but is driven by, the human. He writes science fiction that doesn’t just make you go “Wow!” at cool gadgets taming final frontiers, but that makes you go “Wow!” at having been treated to slices of real life inhabited by real people in a world that, for all its evident fictionality, could just be the world you’ll face when you put the book down and go outside. The first thing of Flynn’s that I read was his four book series on a near-future effort to develop a new society in space in our own solar system: Firestar, Rogue Star, Lodestar, and Falling Stars. The second thing of his I read was The Wreck of the River of the Stars, a follow-up to the Firestar series set a hundred years after it. Now, thanks to a reader’s suggestion, I’ve just finished Eifelheim, and am glad to have had it pointed out to me (thanks Scylding).
Eifelheim is just a superb book. It’s got science. It’s got religion. It’s got meaningful and provocative exchanges between science and religion that cut to ribbons all the stupid caricatures of those things that one finds in so much sci-fi. It’s got the Modern world, and it’s got the Middle Ages. It’s got a 21st century theoretical physicist trying to figure out “hypospace” and it’s got a 14th century Aristotelian priest carrying on fruitful discourse with post-Einsteinian aliens about the true nature of life, the universe, and everything. It deals with questions like “Can aliens become Christians?” and “Why does a good God allow so much evil in the world?” It intelligently and wittily dismantles the stupid slur of Fundamentalist Modern Scientists that the Middle Ages was a time of backwards superstition where nobody knew or cared about how the world worked and would just as soon burn a man of science at the stake as listen to his crazy, heretical ideas about physics – if not run screaming from aliens and / or commit suicide because their backwards worldview has no place for “the way things really are.” On top of all this, it’s got Flynn’s inestimable insight into the human condition, not just generically but in individual relationships. Psychologically and emotionally, Flynn’s characters are real people, and it only takes a few pages for you to be hooked on caring what is going to happen to them. In Eifelheim, in fact, Flynn takes his mastery of characterization and creates aliens who are every bit as believable as his 14th century German villagers and his 21st century physicists and mathematicians.
Eifelheim is a real treat in all these ways, but for me, being a student of the Middle Ages it was even more of a treat. The interactions between the Aristotelian-trained priest and the hypospace-traveling aliens never fails to fascinate and challenge, especially with its liberal invocations by the priest of such pivotal Medieval natural philosophers as John Buridan, Nicholas Oresme, and Peter Aureoli – these figures are portrayed (rightly, I think) as being every bit as important to the development of science as any Bacon or Newton or Galileo or Copernicus or Einstein. William of Ockham makes a brief and memorable appearance as the priest’s old school friend passing through on his way to reconcile with the Avignon papacy he has spent so much time railing against. Marsilius of Padua, a key figure of Medieval theories of resistance to tyranny and representative government, receives several honorable mentions. Important issues of the intersections of spiritual and temporal authority, and the abuse of both, take on living color that journal articles can’t convey. The radical mysticism of Joachim of Fiore stands side-by-side with the calm “rationalism” of the Universities, painting a vivid picture of the diversity of real Medieval faith and life.
Though a very different kind of book (and much more conceptually and historically dense), Eifelheim is as favorable a portrayal of the Middle Ages as Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, which is one of my all time favorite sci-fi novels. For insight into Christianity and culture, it also compares well with Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz. One of the most interesting things said in the entire book is Flynn’s note at the end that in the Middle Ages people took Christianity a lot more seriously than most of what Flynn calls today’s “Bible-thumpers” do. In Eifelheim, you see this in vivid detail on every page: Christianity was literally the cultural air these people breathed, and it literally permeated every aspect of their world and culture with its preservative and transformative influence. This is such a welcome message to find in science fiction, a medium usually permeated with oppressive unbelief and massive ignorance of and arrogance toward all things religious. I wish the sorts of people who write stuff like Stargate SG-1 and Star Trek: The Next Generation would read novels like Eifelheim.
Some key points of the novel: science is a lot more religious than modern scientists like to admit, and the categories of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” are just as alive there as in any caricature of the Medieval Inquisition; you never know what fantastic piece of knowledge might be lying in some ancient manuscript, undeciphered because the right person hasn’t looked at in the right way; religion and science both sound like gibberish if you don’t understand their respective first principles; Aristotle might have gotten some things wrong, but he wasn’t an idiot and in Christian hands, especially, many of his principles were surprisingly fruitful. The list could be expanded. At any rate, I highly recommend this book – though with the warning that (1) your eyes may glaze over at some points if you aren’t that interested in trying to understand abstruse modern theoretical physics or Medieval natural philosophy, (2) the portrayals of14th-century German village life are occasionally somewhat “earthy,” particularly regarding sexuality, and (3) some of the scenes of the effects of the Black Plague near the end of the book are rather disturbing.