Today is the last day to vote for the Hugo Awards. (If you hurry and register as a supporting member of Worldcon 2007, you can still get your ballot in online.) Among the nominees for Best Novel is Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, whose recent story "Quaestiones Super Caelo et Mundo" I discussed in May. Eifelheim is similar to "Quaestiones" in many ways—both are set in the Middle Ages, and both aim to debunk stereotypes and misconceptions about that era, particularly in regards to the interaction of theology and natural philosophy. Eifelheim has a less cosmopolitan setting, but a more clearly SFnal premise: A spaceship full of aliens crash-lands near Oberhochwald, a small village in Germany's Black Forest, in the 14th century. The aliens—the Krenken—attempt to repair their ship using the limited technology available in rural, medieval Germany, and the novel makes much of the aliens' attempts to translate their scientific ideas into the language of an era that is just discovering the laws of motion. Scientific concepts familiar to us today end up sounding like mystical concepts:
"We have a ... relationship ... between spirit and material things. We say that 'spirit equals material by the speed of light by the speed of light.'"
This story is interspersed with that of a historian who slowly uncovers the truth about the visitors to medieval Oberhochwald at the same time that his girlfriend, a quantum physicist, discovers the scientific concepts necessary to comprehending the alien's transportation technology. These segments are a cleverly-constructed mystery to which we already know the solution, but the real strength of Eifelheim likes in its descriptions of the interactions between two cultures. The Krenken are (if my nonterrestrial readers will forgive the speciesism) humanized; we get a real sense of the frustration of their situation and their increasing despair as they realize they may never return home. Flynn's novel is not the first to posit first contact in the medieval period, but he certainly grants all of his characters a larger measure of complexity than some of his predecessors. The aliens of Patricia Anthony's God's Fires, for example, barely communicate at all, and the human response to their existence is a predictable dichotomy: the ignorant poor revere them as aliens, and the vicious church elite condemns them as demons. The villagers of Oberhochwald show far more variation in their responses, but all of their reactions seem very real—far more interesting than stereotypical superstition.
Over time, the villages come to accept and even to love their alien visitors, and Flynn presents this comradeship in explicitly Christian terms. The most powerful passage in the novel is a sermon delivered by Brother Joachim, a Franciscan monk, shortly after the aliens' arrival. Joachim plays off the distrust that some of the villagers feel toward the Krenken, but transforms that distrust into caritas:
"'The are true demons. A glance alone convinces. Their coming is a great trial for us ... and how we answer it may be the saving of our souls! [...] 'Remember Job,' he told them, 'and how God tested his faith, sending demons to torment him! Remember how God Himself, robed in flesh, suffered all human afflictions—even death! Might He not then afflict demons as he afflicted Job, and even His Son? Dare we bind God with necessity and say that this work God cannot do? No! God has willed that these demons suffer the afflictions of the flesh.' His voice dropped. 'But why? But why?' This he said as if he pondered aloud, so that the assembly stilled to hear him. 'He does nothing without purpose, hidden though His purpose may be from us. He became flesh to save us from sin. He made these demons flesh to save them from sin. If angels fall, then demons may rise. And we are to be the instrument of their salvation! See how they have suffered at God's will ... And pity them! [...] Show these beings what a Christian is,' Joachim continued. '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. Remember the Great Plea: Lord, when did we see You hungry? When did we see You naked? When? In our neighbor! And who is our neighbor? Any who may cross our path!' Here he stabbed a finger directly at the mass of impassive Krenken standing on the gospel side of the nave. 'Imprisoned in flesh, they can wield no demonic powers. Christ is all-powerful. The goodness of Christ is all-powerful. It triumphs over every mean and petty and wicked thing, it triumphs over wickedness as old as Lucifer. Now we may see that it will triumph over Hell itself!'"
Eifelheim is a story about compassion, and Flynn rightly sees faith as a wellspring of empathy. In a genre that is all-too-often willing to paint cruel caricatures of religion's darker corners, Flynn's novel is a profound breath of fresh air. It is a brave and moving story and a worthy candidate for SF's highest honor.
Courtesy of Tor and the Spectrum Literary Agency, Eifelheim is available for free as a .pdf here.