Friday, September 14, 2007

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

Orson Scott Card rated Eifelheim by Michael Flynn "the best science fiction novel not by me" in 2006. He further writes, "This story of alien visitors to a medieval German village, and the modern scientists trying to piece together what really happened, will fill your mind with unforgettable images."

I wanted to love Eifelheim as much as Card did. I really, really did. But its 316 pages felt like 600 at times. The book I wanted to read was Eifelheim for Dummies. I found the text to be just a bit too demanding to hold my attention for long segments of time. Why? It is mostly set in medieval Germany. 14th century Rhineland/Black Forest to be exact. The chief narrator is a priest named Dietrich. The names of the villagers, the names of the surrounding enemies, the names of the aliens, require much juggling. I had a hard time figuring out who was who and who was what for most of the novel despite the fact that there was a chart in the beginning of the novel. In fact, only two characters stood out: Deitrich, the priest, and and Hans, one of the aliens. Everyone else was just a name. Sometimes I'd remember what their profession was or what their social class was or what their sub-plot was, most of the time it stayed a blur. But the diverse cast of characters with longish names isn't the main problem. NO, that would be the fact that this novel lacks something crucial if you want the readership to include the "common" man or woman. A glossary. If you're going to use German and Latin phrases and words--generally several per page--you've got to either give the reader some indication as to what they mean either in the text iteself or at the back of the book in a glossary. There are also a good many English words that went right over my head. They certainly weren't on any SAT list I encountered. So there could be at any time over half a page that was undecipherable for me unless I wanted to try to find a dictionary or seek out a translation help. I didn't. Therefore, much of the story stayed over my head. I figured that I was able to hold some of the main plot together, and that the rest was just beyond me. The main plot? Aliens--two groups of traveling aliens--"crash" outside this German village. They didn't intend to be stranded. I don't think they meant to visit or stop at all. The priest and some other villagers find them. The priest decides to help these travelers. To treat them as friends. To welcome them, care for them, provide for them. Half the village, however, thinks these "aliens" are demons. So the book is about how these two groups learn to coexist. How they learn to get along. How they come to understand one another. How they perceive one another. What they do for one another. It is an opportunity to explore the faith--do you welcome all, love all, appreciate all, or do you judge, hate, and despise those who are "different" "other" or "foreign." Do you demonize what you don't understand, or do you treat them as a "neighbor."

There are religious, scientific, philosophical, political, and economic subplots as well. The book is heavy in dialogue. And I wish I could understand more than ten percent of it. I should also mention that it is "rich" in cultural and national history. Since I was completely unfamiliar with this time period--at least from the German point of view--it was a bit overwhelming at times. I think I'm not the only one who will have a hard time connecting with this time period.

Yet despite all my frustrations, I was intrigued enough by the concept, I cared enough, to want to keep persevering through it all. By page 270 or 280, I was beginning to grasp it. Beginning to understand more and able to follow it better. But I realize that most people aren't that patient.

I would be curious to see other reviews of this one. Am I the only one that had a hard time comprehending the language and vocabulary? The only one who felt out of their element when trying to make sense of this foreign culture/setting/time period?
The primary problems with the novel lie with the pacing and structure. The 14th-century narrative that makes up most of the book moves exceedingly slow, with the most interesting events appearing as compelling moments that are interspersed within long sections of medieval village life, church services and theological discussions that sometimes become tedious. The contemporary sections with Tom and Sharon are too short and too far between to be compelling on their own, and the narrative device that has their story being told by a German colleague seems extraneous. This would have been a better novel if the 14th-century narrative had been tightened and the 21st-century story had been made more compelling, with Tom's historical documents providing more of the 14th-century story.


Chris said...

What a bummer!! I've been looking forward to this one since Card first reviewed it. The story sounds fascinating and sounds like it has so much potential, but like you said, it sounds like it's wasted if it's not accessible to the reader. I suspect I'll have the same problem as you. I always do when author's do that and I'll never understand why they do!! Why not make your novel accessible to the general public??? Why throw in so many words from other languages and not translate them or set your novel in another time period without explaining that time period to us??

Man, I'm so disappointed...I'm still going to read it and hope for the best. It's just such a great idea for a novel with so much potential and it's ashame that it was so rough to get through!

Becky said...

It did have potential. And I suppose for the *right* reader, it is a successful novel. It does get some good reviews--Card's for one--and it was starred in publishers weekly, I believe. But I don't know Latin. I certainly don't know anything about fourteenth century Catholicism or village life and the whole class system and politics. And there aren't really any helps in the novel that explain or give background information.

What I wish for is that there was an Eifelheim for Dummies. An annotated edition would great. Footnotes to explain what everything meant. Either that or Cliff Notes. I would have loved to have chapter by chapter help on understanding everything. I think I would have appreciated it more. As it was, I got only the most obvious points, only the barest plot elements.

Perhaps my frustrations are in part that I got this novel around the same time as Thirteenth Tale. I began this one as soon as I finished the other. I read Thirteenth in two days. This other took about ten days. It was just very, very slow. Of course it didn't help that during this time, I was reading Dracula. And probably ten other books. But I would be reading Eifelheim, pick up another book, start it, and then grudgingly pick Eifelheim back up for a chapter, and then go back to a faster read.

But I am curious to see what others think about it. Maybe you'll have more luck. It really is a fascinating concept.