In a nutshell: Good book. Go read it.
In addition to great storytelling and loveable, warty characters, what makes this story of alien first contact excellent is the sympathetic treatment of 2 mysterious peoples: medieval villagers and space aliens. In the hands of Carl Sagan, for example, space aliens are presented in the guise of the long-lost daddy to the now grown little girl who lost her father as a child – in other words, every emotional card is played to show the aliens in what, in retrospect, is an impossibly positive light. They exhibit a sort of perfect benevolence unknown in this space-time continuum – no religious overtones, there, uh-uh. Or, to take the other extreme, in the movie Solaris, the aliens are so alien as to be utterly incomprehensible – although they try the exact same trick of appearing as lost humans beloved by the crew.
Many other stories go the Star Trek/My Favorite Martian route, and have often avuncular aliens more like humans than most humans, caricatures of caricatures, as it were: Klingons are more Roman than the Romans; Vulcans are the French Revolutionaries scrubbed clean of all ugly reality; and Uncle Martin is, well, an uncle.
These seem to be the available flavors for aliens who are not out to destroy/enslave/eat us. Yet Flynn, while opting for the classic insectoid type alien on the physical level, manages to come up with another type altogether: the Krenken, aliens who don’t know everything in the same way as humans don’t know everything; aliens confident in their assumptions like we humans are confident in our assumptions; aliens alternately fascinated and infuriated by challenges to those assumptions.
The trick, which Flynn pulls off completely, is creating interesting and believable differences in knowledge and assumptions and reactions between the humans and aliens. Creating a societal structure based on the very different evolutionary origins of the aliens, Flynn helps the reader comes to both believe and understand why the aliens behave as they do, and how, over the course of the story, many of them become largely integrated into medieval village life. Much of the subtle drama of the story hinges on why the Krenken don’t just grab their blasters and take over by force – they are both ‘superior’ and yet able to learn from and dependent upon the villagers.
Which brings us to the truly alien aliens. For the several generations now whose understanding of medieval life is based on the witch scene in Monte Python and the Holy Grail (which is evidently a step up from what you’d learn in school), Flynn’s portrayal of medieval German villagers as real people living real lives is probably a shock. They don’t burn any witches or engage in any superstitious silliness – at least, no more than we do today. They live their lives within a social structure that provides some degree of respect and protection to all by means of nested, carefully-delineated rights and duties. Meanwhile, the larger world roils with intrigue and war – kind of like today, like every age forever. Flynn wryly touches on the theological and liturgical battles of the day – again, not so different than now.
We get a flawed yet admirable Lord with his flawed yet admirable household, peasants who are the usual blend of saints and sinners, and Fr. Dietrich, a Thomist exile from Paris laying low as the parish priest in Oberhochwald for reasons only slowly revealed. Dietrich’s interactions with the aliens allows for two very well formed world views to interact and be expounded. The beauty of this story is how what could be dry moments of theoretical arcana jump to life as real issues with concrete bearing on the plot.
In the end, the Black Death comes to the village, putting all theory and philosophy to the test.
In parallel to the scenes unfolding in a village in the Black Forest in 1348 and 1349 are scenes of a modern couple consisting of a physicist and a ‘cliologist’ – a metrical historian, as opposed to a narrative historian. The cliologist is obsessed with the disappearance, and, more important, the failure to reappear of an obscure German village known as Eifelheim. He eventually drags his physicist partner into it as well. The story of their research is told along side the medieval story they are trying to discover. These chapters add some drive and drama to the story, as well as much of the requisite scientific veneer, as first contact stories must be supplied with either eons or a warp drive equivalent.
Very fun, very cool book. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out!