Do you believe there is intelligent life on other planets?
What a strange QotD, especially when I had just finished a book last week that I had wanted to post about.
Eifelheim is a book by Michael Flynn and is unusual science fiction book because it takes place in the Middle Ages. In it, an erudite parish priest in a small, isolated Black Forest hamlet discovers and ultimately befriends aliens (“classic Greys” by description) who have crash-landed in nearby woods. The story goes back and forth between then and the modern world, where a researcher who has figured out that something’s amiss in Eifelheim’s history, but doesn’t know what it is, digs in deep to try and piece it together.
Of the two settings, the 14th century village makes for much more interesting reading and more compelling characters. Initially a story of fear that turns to a détente and finally to respect and friendship, the unlikely protagonists help one another through a difficult winter where the humans are at risk to The Black Death, and the aliens at risk by trying to live on an un-natural ecosystem.
It's a pretty good book: I loved the beginning tension of the book, the end was very satisfying – the middle wandered a bit and I didn’t care that much about the “modern” people, and maybe things fit together a little too conveniently. One of the more interesting aspects is that the priest seeks and allows the conversion of aliens to Christianity. There wasn’t a lot of theology tossed about, but it made me think of another book of a similar theme that I'd read a couple of years ago…
Mary Doria Russell's book “The Sparrow” is a fascinating book in which WE are the ones making first contact to an alien civilization. After detecting signals from another world, Earth’s governments debate a course of action. The Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church however decides that they are called on to act as Missionaries to this new world, much in the same way that Spanish and French Missionaries lead much of the colonization of the Western hemisphere in the 16th century after the initial voyages of discovery. They use the considerable resources of the Church to beat the secular governments to the punch.
The story follows the Mission and centers on the priest who is the spiritual head of it. Because of the inability to communicate at long distances, the Mission is sent and must find its own way. Early in the book, you learn that the priest returns a devastated and broken man. The story is gripping and heart-rending as it is played out both in the “present” day and in reflection of what befell the Mission (you are reminded that a lot of earthly Missions ended with the Missionaries all dead). The characters are well-established and the philosophy of what the discovery of an alien civilization would mean for the world’s religions is thought-provokingly covered.
Too often in science-fiction religion has no place – depicted too much with simple-minded zealotry, but I thought these two books covered that ground thoughtfully and sympathetically (without being preachy at all). Overall, both were good reads, and the two together are a very interesting take on the whole “first contact” sub-genre. Of the two, I recommend “The Sparrow” more – it is a better crafted novel that asks more of its reader.
And as for the QotD, we all know the answer: “Its life Jim, but not as we know it.”