Friday, 17 June 2016

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn


Somewhere in here in a good idea. The notion that first contact happened, not after the industrial revolution, not after we'd already achieved or were even dreaming of space flight, but rather in a time period where the very notion wouldn't even have made sense, is provocative and interesting. There are some good things in this book, but they were marred by a tendency to be far too cute, and the fact that the historian in the present annoyed the fuck out of me. 

So, we're in what will be Germany, on the edge of (or right in?) the Black Forest, just before an outbreak of the Black Death. A medieval town waits to hear if it will spread to them, as well as participating in the very edges of some political/military jockeying for position and theological debates. 

Dietrich, the priest in the village, is a hidden theologian, having run from some of the unrest years earlier, and concealing himself in the backwoods since then. This gives the author a way to be right in the thick of the intellectual currents while not. It's a choice, I suppose, and I suppose it maybe gives him the justification for having the priest accept the aliens when they arrive.

Aliens do arrive, the Krenk, who look like praying mantises, and are rather frantically trying to fix their ship so they can go home. (It seems to translate through dimensions rather than through space. So it's not that they need to escape gravity.) While doing so, they talk to Dietrich at great length, as he tries to convert them through the reasoned faith he believes in. (His assistant, Joachim, follows one of the more enthusiastic strains of Catholic thought, and appeals to their emotions.) He has little trouble accepting them as souls in need of saving, despite their lack of human form. 

That is not what I have a problem with - I think it quite likely that some people would freak the fuck out and some would find ways to accept an alien presence in virtually any culture. I am a little less sure of the association between being educated and being tolerant, but hey. Fine.

Where it does get too cute is when the Krenk explain different ideas to Dietrich and somehow, every goddamned time, he comes up with the exact term that will come into use hundreds and hundreds of years later. Once, it's cute. More than that, just stop. Just stop. It doesn't make him smarter to have invented the exact name of 20th century devices, instead of getting some right and some wrong. Microphones, photographs, proteins, hell, the concept "nature abhors a vacuum" - somehow Dietrich grabs on to the "right" one every time, like there's a platonic idea of microphones out there and he can see through time.

It gets worse. At the beginning of the book, Dietrich looks like a waterwheel and foresees automation to the level of humans never having to do mechanical tasks ever again,w hich is a pretty far fucking leap. I've read some Steven Johnson, I'm pretty sold on the idea that for some inventions, there are necessary preconditions before they can even be imagined, and I'm also pretty sure that nobody was dreaming of assembly lines and automation of everything in life in the Middle Ages. Why would you?

But then, the one that really bugged me because it's far too precious for words is when the Krenk are trying to explain, essentially, binary, and the idea of a 0 or 1 being the smallest unit of data, and Dietrich, I shit you not, thinks for a second and declares that he would call that a bisschen - that is to say, a bit. I mean, really? 

What does it add to have these adorable little features? How does it prove he's smart or not? It doesn't - it just intrudes the author into the story in such a way that makes my eyes roll so hard I think they might fall out of my head. 

Also, the whole idea that when the Krenk are trying to describe their rigidly hierarchical social structure, and Dietrich is baffled by it? Really? I am all for the notion of adding some complexity to our concept of the medieval mind - I'm sure there was more mobility than we might think. But I'm also very sure that the idea of a hierarchical society would not be one that a medieval priest would have trouble understanding.

(Not to mention, apparently the hierarchy for the Krenk is genetic and has never been broken, yet the first time it is stressed, it is broken, right there, which is when such ideas are usually changed. So...what? There was never a crisis before? Never someone in charge in such a way that breaking out of a rigid hierarchy seemed the way to go?)

So, in essence, I kept getting pulled out of this. Sometimes, the author was right, but a lot more often, it just seemed artificial as hell.

The other part I got stuck on is the historian in the present, who loves quantitative methods of history and spurns the qualitative methods, and has apparently no indepth knowledge of any given time period beyond the numbers that allow his perfect mathematical predictions.

Putting aside the objection that historical records are too scanty to allow for perfect mathematical prediction, I just cannot believe that someone made it through multiple degrees in history without EVER having taken a course that made him delve deeply into source materials, other than punching numbers into a computer. What would those courses look like? It just seems so ludicrous. 

Even if the kind of history he's talking about so snottily were possible, it just beggars the imagination that anyone could have gone through any kind of long-term study of history and never cracked a primary source that wasn't census numbers. Or taken a course from a social historian, a political historian, a military historian or...really, even an economic historian!

At any rate, yeah. I didn't love this one. There are some good things, but this is too far on the side of seeing people in the past as just like us, only with silly hats. (People in the past as utterly alien is equally wrong.)  And the historian in the future bugged me. There was too much irritating for me to relax and enjoy it.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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