I’ve just finished Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, and I really enjoyed it.
The setup is simple. Aliens crash in fourteenth century Germany. They don’t have the materials with them to fix their spaceship, and even though they’ve crashed deep in a forest, they’re soon discovered by humans.
The main character is Father Dietrich, a priest and scholar. He is a man of great faith, but has also studied in Paris and hobnobbed with some of the finest minds of his time. The aliens are truly fortunate that he is one of the first people to find them, because he doesn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that they’re demons, as most of the rest of the people would have. In fact, much of the enjoyment of this book is in watching Dietrich attempt to make sense of these creatures. He’s thoughtful, intelligent, and as educated as you can get, but fourteenth century science (pre Newton, pre Galileo, pre Copernicus) just doesn’t prepare one for this. Dietrich’s efforts to understand are valiant and admirable, but even once he’s able to communicate with the grasshopper-like creatures, his communication is hindered by faulty cosmology and a complete ignorance of electricity.
There’s a second plot line that takes place in the present (or near future) involving a couple of academics. She’s a cosmologist working on a new theory of spacetime, he’s a historian who does computer modeling of populations and can’t figure out why an old abandoned German village has never been resettled. (This would, of course, be Eifelheim.) Ironically perhaps, I found the history part of this more interesting than the physics part. He uncovers lots of bits and pieces of the mystery that are baffling to him, but that the reader gets. The present day action takes up much less of the book than the fourteenth century stuff.
It’s not an action story, by any means. Its strength is in the characters, both human and alien. They are generally sympathetic, even when they disagree (which is often) or do things that would generally be considered wrong. Even the alien characters are diverse and fleshed out. It’s a very thoughtful book, and seems to be very well researched. All in all, it’s one of the better books I’ve read lately.