Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Defense of the giant grasshoppers

kw: book reviews, science fiction, historical fiction, medieval period, aliens, first contact

Years ago, I read a novella that placed a time-traveling scientist in a medieval village during the 14th century plague. It devolved to a psychological study of the young woman, herself immunized against Yersinia pestis and a host of other ills, becoming the last person alive in the village, finally burying the village priest.

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn reminded me of it. I know that this book is an expansion of an earlier novella by Flynn, but I haven't determined if it was the one I read or not. There is no time traveler here, though the cosmological theory developed by one character hints at a way to travel in time.

The basic story, 80% narrative of 14th-Century life and 20% vignettes of the lives of the historians studying the earlier events, is of a starcraft that barely escapes crashing in the Black Forest, but lands damaged. Its insectile inhabitants are, rather astonishingly, welcomed by first one, then two or three of the first humans to locate their landing site. Gradually they become accepted by many, but not all, of the villagers. At the end, the ship is repaired, at least enough to take off, though a successful return to home is not assured. A few aliens remain behind, preferring certain, but slow, death in the German village to the rather significant chance of an infinitely-prolonged dying if the ship gets "stuck" in a space warp. Should their fellows succeed, they plan to return for them.

The aliens cannot gain full nourishment from Earth foods, because their biochemistry requires 21 amino acids, while nearly all Earth life lives with 20. The missing ingredient is never found, and the ship does not return. Rather, everyone dies of plague, except the aliens who die of malnutrition, and the village gains the name Teufelheim (Devil's home), later elided to Eifelheim.

Back in the present, a historian is trying to determine why this location alone, now with the name Eifelheim, was never resettled after being depopulated by plague in 1349. His lover, a physicist, is trying to develop a better model of cosmology than 11-dimensioned string theory. About the time she succeeds, she happens to see a strangely-configured illuminated capital letter in a manuscript the historian is studying, and recognizes that it is a circuit diagram similar to one she had designed to detect signs of her theory's special particles. The manuscript and others were located by a librarian who is trying to seduce the historian; at the end, it seems she might have done so, but that strand is left hanging.

In fact, a number of strands are left hanging, in the rather obvious way that is becoming common—it almost harks back to the cliffhanger endings of Perils of Pauline episodes. While the historian and librarian, with the help of a narrator-colleague, do confirm that the "demons" of certain documents really were aliens, no other subplot is completed. It's no surprise that Flynn wishes to write more books. Ending a novel with no more than a hope of the solution is an unsatisfying way to prompt for a series of sequelae.

No comments: