Flynn, Michael: Eifelheim

I am not having great luck with my Worldcon homework, really. Michael Flynn’s Hugo-nominated novel Eifelheim ended up being a reasonable enough read, but nothing I’m really excited to have put off reading more-anticipated books for.

The premise: in 1348, aliens crash near a remote German village, later known as Eifelheim. In the present day, a historian is trying to figure out why Eifelheim was never re-settled after the Black Death. He lives with a theoretical physicist who is pondering the nature of time and space, and their work ends up unexpectedly (to them; the reader saw it coming from the start) intersecting.

Let me get an extrinsic but nevertheless significant factor out of the way first:

The type in this book is really very small. It is amazing how uninviting this made the book feel.

The book is notably slow to start; it’s 60 pages before the aliens appear, and almost 150 before something that felt like a plot developed. Until then, I kept being reminded of that old comment that “The king died and then the queen died” is a story, while “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. For a while, a lot of things happened one after another, but not many happened because of something else.

It also has some intensely irritating elements that are particularly prominent early on. The male character in the present-day sections drops into other languages seemingly at random, which annoyed me so much that after two pages, I asked Chad whether this ever improved. He said it didn’t, but that the character wasn’t around very much, both of which are true. Another language irritation was described by Chad in his review, the way the main medieval character keeps coming up with modern-day names for things:

“They placed devices about the village to listen to our speech. They showed me one. It was no bigger than my thumb and looked like an insect, for which reason I call them ‘bugs.'”

I was surprised how intrusive I found this, because it hadn’t sounded that bad in Chad’s review. (Also, Germany is not in the tropics. I would be very surprised if any bugs, let alone the ones that would come to mind as representative of the class, were the size of a man’s thumb.)

Another intrusive thing is the omniscient narrator of the present-day sections. Judging by the prologue, I believe I am supposed to understand this narrator to be a character introduced late in the book; but why the character knows all this, and why the author chose to have the present-day sections told this way, I cannot fathom. Here, have a two-fer, the narrator and the random languages:

And yet, [the physicist] sensed a pattern lurking beneath the chaos and she stalked it as a cat might—in stealthy half-steps and never quite straightforward. Perhaps it lacked only the right beholding to fall into beauty. Consider Quasimodo, or Beauty’s Beast.

Damn!

An alien voice intruded into her world. She heard Tom smack his PC terminal and she screwed her eyes shut, trying not to listen. Almost, she could see it clear. The equations hinted at multiple rotation groups connected by a meta-algebra. But . . .

Durák! Bünözö! Jáki!

 . . . But the world shattered into a kaleidoscope, and for a moment she sat overwhelmed by a sense of infinite loss. She threw her pen at the coffee table, where it clattered against white bone-china teacups. Evidently God did not intend for her to solve the geometry of Janatpour space quite yet. She glared at Tom, who muttered over his keyboard.

There is something true about Sharon Nagy in that one half-missed detail: that she uses a pen and not a pencil. It betokens a sort of hubris.

(Ellipses in original.)

As Chad also noted, there is a lot of people explaining stuff to each other in this book. I was able to blissfully glaze over during the present-day physics, secure in his assurance that it was gibberish, but it’s there in the medieval-era sections too. And while it’s entirely natural in a first-contact story, there’s still really a lot of it. Your enjoyment of such things may vary. Me, the cumulative effect does edge towards “I’ve suffered for my research and so will you.”

That all said, I was eventually more moved than I’d expected, considering that the first half or so didn’t much engage me, and that the general nature of the ending is known from the start. I might have been more so in other hands, but I’ll still consider this to outweigh the slow start and minor irritations. Anyone particularly interested in medieval thought, first contact, or the history of science might give it a try.

The full text of the book is available as a 1.8 MB PDF via the author’s agent, which is a nice thought even if PDF is a lousy way to read on-screen.

4 Comments

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  1. There is something true about Sharon Nagy in that one half-missed detail: that she uses a pen and not a pencil. It betokens a sort of hubris.
    Talk about getting the small details wrong.
    Everyone I know uses pens for notes and calculations. Pencils fade. And sometimes those mistakes aren’t as mistaken as you first thought.

  2. Aaron: heh. I didn’t even think about that, because I was too busy saying “‘half-missed’? Who’s doing the missing, here?”
    But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about the small details, considering what Chad had to say about the big picture.
    (I only use pencil for editing other people’s documents.)

  3. There is no need to go to the tropics to get large insects. Stag beetles common in Britain and Europe and can be between 2″ to 3″ long not including antenna. The European rhinoceros beetle is a bit smaller topping out at around a respectable 2″. If you measure from the thumb web to the top of the thumb the beetles have me beat even without their antenna.

  4. andyl: sure, I’ve seen bugs bigger than my thumb (house centipedes, *shudder*), but they aren’t my default for “bug.”
    And more importantly, this stood out because it was just one example of a persistent pattern in the book that I found intrusive.

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