When I was fourteen, and going through the obligatory foray into Chaucer that occurs in every freshman English class in America, my dad sat me down and told me about the Black Plague: a third to half of Europe's population dead, the end of serfdom, flagellents, the Avignon papacy, medieval medicine, the humours, pogroms, heroism, free love. What an unbelievable story. The Black Plague and all of its mayhem is like the fact of dinosaurs: it's terrible, but it actually happened, and sometimes its a wonder that we act so blasé about these things. It's amazing that more people don't grab you in the street by the lapels and shout: a third of the population dead by conservative estimates
! Think of that! And now there's good evidence that T Rex hunted in packs, packs I tell you
. Can you imagine 100 tons of predator? Of course you can't.
Then Dad pushed a copy of Boccaccio's Decameron
into my hands. He said, “Read this. It predates The Canterbury Tales
: ten people tell ten tales while holed up in a country estate waiting for the Plague to burn out of whatever godforsaken Italian town they're all run from, no doubt bringing the pest to the country with them. It is considered by some the first novel. But imagine that, telling stories in the dark while everyone you knew died around you.” I've written out this quote like I remember what he said, but I do remember this nugget of wisdom, from Dad, verbatim: “Fourteenth Century smut.”
I had a weird childhood, in some ways.
Dad's fascination with the Black Death (a name not coined until the 18th Century) became my fascination with the Pestilence. I'm not a very good reader of history, because I'm lazy. History is where we store the dinosaurs, but I mean that in a good way. But history books often just bore me to tears, all those facts laid out in sequential order like that's supposed to mean something. History doesn't mean, it is, like the triceratops browsing cycads in the Jurassic forest. And like those mighty bones, the past can only be inferred by the layers of sediment that accrue over the facts themselves. A flash flood kills the beast, runs it downriver where a fine layer of grit leaves its corpse undisturbed for 65 million years. In the history of humanity, one of the flash floods is the Plague, and the silt is the stories and narratives that those who lived and died during those remarkable times chose to write down. Okay, a lot of what we know is also gleaned from a lot of painfully boring church registers and requests for resources and other mundanities, but that's not what floats my boat. What gets me all fired up is the stories: de Chelliac, a notable doctor of the time, sweating out the plague and writing careful descriptions while he oozed blood and bubbled with boils. Yuck. Amazing!
I'm a sucker for narrative, and because of that, novels like Eifelheim
hit a sweet spot between facts and ideas. A common scifi tale is the fish-out-of-water story: someone who doesn't know whatever alien culture shows up, and then everyone has to explain why they do what they do. People get cryogenically frozen
, or are hobbits, or move here from Mars
and whatnot. Here, the author plays with this brilliantly. Aliens show up, in the 14th Century, in the town that-isn't-yet-Eifelheim, but the humans are the aliens, because the past is freaking crazy weird, and the people who live in the past are so utterly alien.
The village priest befriends them, more or less, viewing the aliens through his medieval lens. He's about as liberal as the author could safely make him without making him modern: a sort of laughing sophist, not inclined to pass judgment or deal in absolutes. He has some lovely, personal reasons for this, that are not entirely writerly cluge. There's another priest, a Franciscan (Minorite? My history is bad, as I said) currently on the outs with his monastic order, who likes to rail about the rich and incite people to bloodshed. I'd always kind of liked St Francis. I mean, who doesn't love the garden statue guy all covered in birds and woodland creatures? But I'd never been aware of the nasty, Marxist uprising stuff that occurred in his name. I guess it's not called the the Dark Ages for nothin', hey?
There's a modern tale as well, more lightly sketched. An historian and a physicist live together, as not quite man and wife. She's trying to work out some incomprehensible physics shit; he's working on why the village of Eifelheim was abandoned and never resettled
. The author's sense of modern relationships is pitch perfect: a bunch of lacunas and things-not-said. The best parts are when the modern physicist runs up again the medieval nature of the university: questioning Einstein is heresy, etc. They, in their separate disciplines, are aliens, and it's lovely the way the two confuse and inform one another.
One of the things that make me a crazy, weeping girl is that I know, in historical fiction, that everyone is dead, but I cry about it anyway. I mean, c'mon, it's the 14th Century: everyone's been wormfood for forever. But this sort of story still kills me. They hang out, talk philosophy, harvest the grain, have a joust or two, and then Holy Mother of Cheez-its, everyone gets sick and dies. Gods no! The author here has a pretty light touch. Much as I like me some Plague, I really don't want to be tortured by the slow, yucky deaths of characters I've grown to love. Thanks, man.
I'm trying to figure out how to wrap up here, and it's kind of tough. I think this book may be Ceridwen-bait, and I'm surprised that there's an author out there catering to my strange love of hard SF, the Plague, and well-sketched alien cultures. It's too weird, and makes me think that maybe the Matrix has me, after all.