Tag Archives: physics

Flynn offers SF with a sense of history in Eifelheim

eifelheimShe stared at him, her head spinning. Aliens? she thought. In medieval Germany? It was fantastic, unbelievable.

Yes, aliens in medieval Germany. That’s the general premise of Eifelheim (2006), Michael Flynn’s unusual take on extraterrestrial contact set in the fourteenth century when the Black Death was ravaging Europe. This is a moderately strong novel with a refreshing twist on the first contact theme, and it comes across as a mature and balanced look at the intersection of two types of minds that we might consider alien: those of the actual aliens, and those of our medieval ancestors. Actually, in some ways the extraterrestrials are easier for our modern sensibilities to relate to; this is partly because they are closer to us in terms of science and technology, and partly because Flynn does a good job of showing just how different medieval thinking was from that of today.

The story is told in two different time frames. One is that of Germany circa 1348, when the alien Krenken, visiting Earth during a scientific expedition, become stranded and find themselves increasingly entangled in the lives of nearby villagers. The other is the present day, when two people, one a physicist and the other a historian, each working on a particular problem in their own field, realize that their two problems intersect, and stumble upon the truth about an alien visit centuries earlier.

The “Now” chapters tell the story of historian Tom Schwoerin and his physicist girlfriend Sharon Nagy. Tom specializes in cliology, which is essentially what Isaac Asimov called “psychohistory” — the rigorous mathematical study of history that provides understanding and predictability of large-scale social trends. Tom encounters a mystery: cliology tells him that cities and towns distribute themselves in a certain pattern based on population, natural resources, terrain, and so forth. However, the village of Eifelheim presents an inexplicable gap in his maps of medieval Germany. It was suddenly abandoned and never repopulated, when all his theories predict that it was a location that should have remained in use. This problem consumes Tom and he won’t let it go. Sharon works in the heady realm of physics and cosmology. She theorizes on the topology of space-time, particularly in the framework of something called Janatpour space. As she pushes her theories further and further, she sees the possibility of instantaneous travel through what she calls “hypospace.” Her ideas are unconventional and her department chairman ridicules them, but Sharon knows she’s on to something. As Tom and Sharon vent their frustrations and bounce ideas off each other, they begin to see a connection between their respective projects…. a connection that will change the world. These “Now” chapters are taken from Flynn’s original “Eifelheim” novella from 1986, and actually make up only perhaps 20% of the present novel. By far, the majority of the story takes place in the past, describing the events of the alien contact itself.

The relationship between the stranded aliens and the Eifelheim villagers is a strained one. The Krenken are humanoid (two arms, two legs, bipedal, etc.) but have an insectoid, grasshopper-like appearance which causes some people to take them, literally, for demons. But the general reaction of the villagers is shaped largely by Eifelheim’s priest, Dietrich, who takes his mandate of charity very seriously. He views the Krenken as men from a distant place, perhaps from China or somewhere even further away, and convinces the local Lord that the right thing is to aid them in their time of need, rather than to shun them. And as it turns out, their need is very great, for they are, in fact, dying from lack of an essential nutrient not found on Earth. A further tragic complication is added when the Black Death sweeps into the area.

In an interview I read, Flynn said he wanted to avoid the common stereotype that “medieval” means “primitive,” and he succeeded at that; there is little in this book that could be called “stereotypical.” The fourteenth century is portrayed with realistic complexity. There is the kind of small-minded superstition we would expect, yes, but Flynn also emphasizes the degree to which logic and reason were prized, even during the so-called Dark Ages. There is the ugly side of religion, the torture of “heretics” and the strife between various sects, yes, but there is also the simple dedication of the villagers to uphold their ideals of charity, even with respect to creatures who are frighteningly different. And, contrary to what you might think, Flynn does not give us the common scenario of the “primitive” humans learning at the feet of the advanced aliens. The interaction is a two-way street, with the two peoples exchanging philosophy, political ideas, and spiritual concepts. In fact, some of the Krenken actually convert to Christianity before the end.

It’s obvious that the book was meticulously researched, and the level of historical detail is impressive. I was pleased to recognize some of the information presented about the Black Death, remembering it from a documentary I saw last year. Flynn kindly assists the reader at the end of the book with both Historical Notes and Physics Notes. And at the front there is even a map of the area (very useful) and a list of characters (not very useful in my opinion). This was an enjoyable read from a capable writer, and I’m happy to recommend it.

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“Science fictiony ideas” can motivate physicists

Theoretical physicist Ben Schumacher recently gave a lecture (described in this story) in which he points out the motivational value of science fiction, saying, “Plenty of really interesting research has been motivated by science fictiony ideas.” Elaborating this point a little more:

Even the most outlandish science fiction stories can spur very real questions for those probing the mysteries of our universe [….] Stories about time travel, flying faster than the speed of light and other supposedly impossible things have long captivated physicists, he said. While most spend their careers studying possible things, there’s value in researching the stuff that falls on the other side of the laws of physics, said Schumacher, who teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio.

One example he uses is the way that Carl Sagan’s book Contact inspired real research into the possibility of wormholes. Motivated by Sagan, physicist Kip Thorne and others at the California Institute of Technology did research that indicated, at least, that the laws of physics don’t absolutely rule out wormholes. But even if they don’t exist, that doesn’t mean the idea was a waste of time:

“It may be there are no such things as wormholes. But if there were, we now understand what the implications would be,” Schumacher said.

Another example is discussed in an article by physicist Paul Davies (How to Build a Time Machine):

Time travel has been a popular science-fiction theme since H. G. Wells wrote his celebrated novel The Time Machine in 1895. But can it really be done? Is it possible to build a machine that would transport a human being into the past or future? For decades, time travel lay beyond the fringe of respectable science. In recent years, however, the topic has become something of a cottage industry among theoretical physicists.

His article delves into the theoretical details, and it’s fascinating stuff. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that even if time travel ultimately turns out to be impossible, physicists could possibly gain some insights into what is possible by way of grappling seriously with the question. And that in itself would be something for science fiction to be proud of.

[Interesting aside: Davies has also been (still is?) chairman of SETI’s Post-Detection Science and Technology Taskgroup. Which means that in the case of a plausible signal, he is called in to advise and consult. Awesome — why can’t I get a job like that?]

And just to drive home the importance of science fiction to physicists, I found this interesting:

At least 10 physicists and technicians from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., regularly attend science fiction conventions.

I’d sure go hang out with a bunch of sci-fi-loving physicists, sounds like a blast to me! 🙂