Sunday, April 01, 2007

Working The Bugs Out Of "Eifelheim"

First of all, I’d like to apologize, folks, for the long gap since my last posting. I try to find something to babble about at least once a week, but things have been hectic for the past little while. My grandmother had a massive stroke two weeks ago and my wife and I, out here on the Wet Coast, had to grab a flight back to my hometown of Cambridge, Ontario to visit her in the hospital and to say goodbye. She’s still holding on and fighting to improve (the family doesn’t affectionately call her The Velvet Sledgehammer for nothing) and is fully aware, but the stroke has left her partially paralyzed and at 93 years old, you just never know. If I hadn’t gone back, I probably would’ve regretted it. Add to that a heavy workload at the office when I returned, and I haven’t had any time lately to indulge in the pleasure of logging on and spouting off.

But I’m back now, so let’s get to it.

A while ago I finished Michael Flynn’s “Eifelheim”. I know, I know, some of you are probably pointing out that this book’s been out for a few months, but I’ve got a ton of new books to plough through, and when there’s fresh servings of Dan Simmons and Minister Faust to be had, other stuff from author’s I haven’t read yet gets pushed to the side of the plate.
At any rate, when I did finally get around to it, “Eifelheim” wasn’t bad. Not great, mind you, but not bad.
Flynn’s story alternates between the events in a Medieval Black Forest village when an alien ship is wrecked nearby shortly before the onset of the plague, and the lives of an academic couple: he trying to unearth the history of the German hamlet, she wrestling with quantum mechanics. While intertwining the plot lines, the book also deals with how we form impressions of people based on limited information (whether it’s the personalities and motivations of individuals who lived in a town in another part of the world hundreds of years ago or the relationship a modern historian has with his research assistant), tolerance for that which is alien (be it an extraterrestrial, someone from a neighbouring village, a new and contradictory philosophy, or a different religion), and the way in which people face crisis and possible death.
Flynn does an excellent job of bringing to life the various characters in his village of Oberhochwald/Eifelheim. Normally, when one thinks of the peasantry of Europe in the Middle Ages, faceless, dirty, rude, dumb, drudgery comes to mind – probably because the education system spends more time on the exploits of nobles, conquerors, inventors and explorers or philosophers within or against the Catholic Church. And yet by flushing out the personalities of his various secondary characters, Flynn points out to those of us in modern times (who fancy ourselves as somehow unique and memorable when future generations will likely pass us over as we do the serfs and freeholders of 800 years ago) that these villages were populated with people who were as complex (or simple) as we: some that were intelligent (if uneducated), some who were narrow-minded, some who questioned the order of things, some committed to duty, the scoundrels, the dedicated workers, the healthy and the sick – all of whom had unique reactions to whatever life had to throw at them: from the joys of festivals to the horror of pestilence. What’s more, the author tries to make as many of the characters as multi-faceted as possible in order to make them believable. A prime example is Pastor Dietrich’s ward Theresia, who has a sweet personality and loves to hear stories and practice herb lore until the arrival of the alien Krenk, when her religious narrow-mindedness makes her quite hostile to them and the priest himself, but not to the other villagers who see things the way she does.
As for the insectoid Krenk themselves, Flynn falls a little short in trying to flush them out to the same degree as his human characters. To be fair, our experience of the Krenk is through the eyes of Dietrich (and thus limited by his Medieval mind’s education and perception of the universe), and is centred on the Krenk’s attempts to survive on Earth and interact with and understand their human neighbours. And yet I was left feeling that the author could have done more to give us a better sense of Krenk culture and what it is they miss about their home (except for vital nutrients to keep them alive or perhaps rarely-mentioned loved ones).
And while the present day plot lines were necessary to reflect some of the issues raised by the Medieval story, I thought this part of the story needed some more work. Sharon’s explorations of quantum mechanics added a hard SF flavour to the story, but one that was ultimately unnecessary (don’t get me wrong, I love a well-done hard SF yarn a-la Clarke or Sawyer – there was just no need for it in this book). I’d be tempted to call this hard SF afterthought a kind of mathsterbation. The novel would have lost nothing without it.
Also, the relationship issues raised between Sharon and Tom (and to some extent Judy) throughout the book are suddenly dropped at the end, leaving their portion of the story feeling somewhat flat and unsatisfying. It’s as though Flynn was suddenly rushed to finish his book and thought “Oh, if I deal with the spousal issues and love triangle possibility that I got into in the previous 290-odd pages, this book will get too long – I’d better just slam the door on it and concentrate on the Krenk stuff – then I can cap this sucker at 313 pages!” Or like the author suddenly got worried about having spousal relationship tale cooties infecting his alternate history tale and worried that if he didn’t drop that end of the story then it might supplant the alien focus of the book. Then again, maybe that was the editor’s call. I don’t know. But it seems fairly obvious that if you’re going to get into character subplots that detailed, even if you don’t tie-up their loose ends at the close of the book (because a pat ending would be equally unsatisfying), an author should make some effort to show that these concerns are still in some way weighing on his characters minds – that they’ve had some impact on the characters. Instead, Sharon seems to disappear once she’s had her scientific revelation while Tom happily goes cavorting around the Black Forest with the other woman giving us no sign as to whether this is going to be trouble.
That being said, don’t let the weaknesses of the modern plotline prevent you from enjoying “Eifelheim”. Overall, it’s certainly worth the read.
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