From time to time here at It's All Straw I've posted audiobook reviews, but today I've added something new: the first ever review of both an audiobook and its print equivalent. I recently finished reading and listening to Michael Flynn's extraordinary science fiction novel Eifelheim. I say reading and listening because after downloading the audio version from Audible.com and listening to about half of it, I found it so remarkable that I decided I wanted to read it for myself and have a physical copy to keep—or perhaps share and give away to friends. For those who prefer their books on paper and not just as a collection of disembodied electrons inside an MP3 player, it's also available in paperback from Amazon.com.
I first heard of it at least a couple of years ago, shortly after its initial publication, when it got highly favorable reviews from Mark Shea, Darwin of Darwin Catholic and some other big guns in the Catholic blogosphere. It won their kudos (and mine) because of its highly original premise, finely drawn characters, skill in dealing with moral and philosophical issues, and perhaps most of all for its sympathetic treatment of the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church. In this absorbing, moving novel, Flynn shatters stereotypes about the church and grapples with deep questions about the meaning of sin, redemption, and suffering.
The story begins in the year 1348, as residents of the tiny German village of Oberhochwald awaken in the predawn hours of a summer morning with the inexplicable feeling that something momentous, and perhaps dreadful, is about to happen. Just as some of them gather at the parish church, a tremendous crash and explosion take place, causing fires in the woods beyond the village. When a small party of villagers, led by Father Dietrich, the parish priest, goes into the woods to survey the damage, they find something beyond their wildest dreams: Oberhochwald has been visited by beings from another world.
The visitors, large, grasshopper-like creatures who call themselves Krenken, however bizarre and fearsome their appearance, are not truly malevolent, merely choleric or quickly prone to anger. They have crashed on Earth by accident and are just as bewildered and frightened of humans as humans are of them. The Krenk surreptitiously station listening devices throughout the village in order to learn the rudiments of German and fashion translation and communication devices in order to interact with the locals. Father Dietrich makes a special effort to befriend the Krenken, and in order to understand their culture and explain human society to them, draws on his extensive knowledge of medieval philosophy, logic, metaphysics, and theology. Here Flynn explodes the myth, popular in certain circles nowadays, that the Catholic Church, and especially the medieval Catholic Church, was ignorant, superstitious, hostile, and afraid of scientific knowledge. On the contrary, Flynn argues, the process of systematic logical reasoning, observation, and experimentation that today we call the scientific method, had its beginnings in the Catholic universities of medieval Europe.
The Krenken, for their part, try to explain the complexities of interstellar travel to Dietrich as much as his knowledge, vocabulary, and comprehension will allow, and ask for his help in finding or fabricating materials they need to repair their ship. Some locals agree to help with the repairs, and one man, while trying to assist the visitors, sacrifices his life in order to prevent a Krenk from being killed accidentally. The Krenken have no concept of charity, or the voluntary surrender of self for the good of another. Their society is based on duty and responsibility, and a Krenk's social status is genetically predetermined. The man's selfless act makes a powerful impression on the newcomers, and several of them begin to inquire about human religious beliefs and ultimately ask to be baptized. This causes tension both among the Krenken and the villagers. Both species believe the natural order of things is being upset by this action. Some Krenken even agree to become vassals of the local nobleman, Herr Manfred, once the existence of the Krenken becomes more widely known.
Manfred, Dietrich, and the other villagers attempt to keep the existence of the Krenken a secret in order to prevent a panic, but of course, the greater the number of people who know a secret, the harder it is to keep. Rumors of strange flying beasts with yellow eyes and demons with occult powers and strange weapons are beginning to escape to the outside world when news of something even more terrible arrives. The Black Death, the outbreak of bubonic plague that decimated medieval Europe, has reached the surrounding towns. Order collapses and panic descends as the villagers begin to sicken and die, unable to understand or prevent the spread of the plague. The Krenken seem immune to human plague, but soon have to confront their own medical crisis. Earth's foods lack a certain protein the Krenken need to survive, causing the aliens to also sicken and die. The only source of the vital protein is the bodies of the dead Krenken that the survivors are forced to consume. The words of Christ at the Last Supper, "Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you," take on a terrible literalism among the baptized Krenken. Humans and Krenken alike seem to be moving inexorably to their doom.
The story of the terrible tragedy that gradually unfolds in the medieval village of Oberhochwald is interspersed with a contemporary story of two present day researchers. Tom, a historian, wants to know why the German village of Eifelheim was suddenly abandoned in the Middle Ages, acquired a mysterious and eerie reputation, and alone of all the villages near it, was never resettled. Sharon, Tom's lover, and a theoretical physicist, is absorbed in a complex theoretical problem that Tom only dimly understands. Unwittingly, however, their two areas of research come together. Using tantalizingly incomplete, vague references from historical documents, Tom deduces the incredible truth: Eifelheim was Oberhochwald. After being abandoned because of the plague, Oberhochwald became known first as Teufelheim ("Devil's Home") and then Eifelheim. The solution to Sharon's theoretical physics problem explains how the Krenken were able to travel through space—and how humans might one day do the same. An obscure document that Tom thinks at first is only a treatise on mystical theology is actually an effort to explain the physics of interstellar travel in medieval terms. An oddly illuminated medieval manuscript is actually a diagram of a crucial part of the alien ship. When Tom and his colleagues discover the remains of a Krenk buried in the old cemetery at Oberhochwald, however, they decide not to desecrate the holy ground and let the dead rest in peace. The book ends as one of the gravediggers in the party looks up at the stars with an expression of hope and wonder on his face.
This is not a perfect book, but it is a very good one. Flynn includes a great deal of information on the mundane details of village life and the bewilderingly complex worlds of medieval religion and politics. These may seem as if they are irrelevant digressions at first, but they give this imaginative recreation of 14th-century Germany real heft and weight. This was a real world, populated by real people who worked, thought, prayed, loved, and died, the author seems to say. They deserve to be treated with respect.
The characters themselves are well-drawn and well-realized. Manfred, Dietrich, and Dietrich's adopted daughter Theresia, all have secrets and troubled pasts they would like to forget, but they are all trying to do good as best they understand it. In time, many of the villagers come to accept the Krenken, addressing them as "friend grasshopper," or "brother monster." Fra Joachim, a young Franciscan friar who assists Dietrich, is prone to outbursts of intemperate zeal and heterodox theology, but he is also capable of extraordinary acts of kindness toward the Krenken. Even the mysterious alien Krenken themselves gradually take on distinct individual personalities. Several of them remain behind after the Krenken ship is repaired, unwilling to leave their human brethren. Others tend those villagers sick and dying of plague. Tom and Sharon, the contemporary characters, by contrast, seem shallow, brittle, and far less interesting than their medieval counterparts.
My one real criticism of the book has to do with the ending. Flynn actually introduces the Tom and Sharon subplot fairly early, alerting the reader that something eventually went terribly wrong in the village of Oberhochwald/Eifelheim. This creates a sense of mystery, impending doom, and inevitable tragedy almost from the beginning of the book, and the reader is almost compelled to continue with the story in order to answer the burning question, "What happened?" What went wrong in Eifelheim? When the answer is finally revealed, it seems somehow oddly flat and anticlimactic—heartbreaking, poignant, and completely plausible given the previous events of the book—but nevertheless, somewhat small and diminished compared to the buildup of tension that preceded it. Perhaps I've been spoiled by too many "Hollywood Blockbuster" endings, but I could think of a couple of alternate means to get to the same ending that might have packed more of a dramatic punch than the one Flynn chose.
Overall, however, Eifelheim is an excellent book that will leave readers or listeners with much to think about long after they have closed the book or switched off the MP3 player. It belongs in the same category with Walter M. Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz or Mary Doria Russell's pair of novels, The Sparrow, and its sequel, The Children of God. These are all outstanding novels that deal intelligently with Catholic themes and take The Catholic faith seriously.