|In this award winning science fiction novel, Tom and Sharon have a lot in common. They share an apartment, both use sophisticated mathematics in their research, and both become completely obsessed with the problem they are studying. Unfortunately, since they work in such different areas (he's a "mathematical historian" and she's a cosmologist), each finds their partner's obsession annoying. That is, until their research areas begin to coincide in studying what event of cosmological significance happened in the town of Eifelheim, Germany in the 14th century.
To those who may be wondering what sort of sophisticated math could be used by a historian, let me emphasize that this is one of the fictional aspects of Michael Flynn's universe. (This is a universe where a librarian that Tom meets explains that she also wanted to be an analytical historian, but couldn't handle the differential topology!) In fact, Flynn wrote an entire appendix on the subject he calls "cliology" in a previous novel, In the Country of the Blind (although there it was used to predict the future rather than understand the past). I am a big proponent of the idea that mathematics has many unexpected applications, and think that fiction is a good way to explore this idea. However, I'm afraid I find this particular application "a bit hard to swallow". We are expected to believe that cliology can predict (using the differential geometry induced by an unorthodox distance metric taking into account factors other than simply physical distance) exactly where towns would be built. Of course, such thinking could certainly point out good candidates for towns, but I do not believe it would be so accurate that failing to find a town where one is predicted to be would necessarily indicate some huge mystery. There are many tiny factors that determine where towns are built and which survive, and I cannot imagine a workable mathematical model that could take them all into account.
That concern aside, there is much to like about this book. I really love the idea of a historian discovering evidence of an extraterrestrial visitation in medieval Europe. I am even more enamored by the way the physics research and history research become intertwined. (At one point, Tom is explaining why the metric on his manifold is "non-abelian." This is a real term from mathematics, although I don't think it is correctly being applied here since he is not discussing a group structure. But, in any case, the idea that the distance from A to B might not be the same as the distance from B to A inspires Sharon in her own research.)
Well, I've been talking so much about Tom and Sharon, since that is my favorite part of the book, I forgot to mention that most of it is actually taking place in Germany in 1348! We meet the townspeople of Eifelheim (well...it wasn't called Eifelheim yet, but...) and the aliens who are stranded there. One very entertaining aspect of the book is the (mis)-communication between the aliens and a priest. (For instance, he mistakes their comments about trying to get back to their home planet for a discussion about salvation and heaven, and they try to tell him about special relativity by saying that "spirit is equal to material by the speed of light by the speed of light".) The aliens do teach him some things, such as the notion of a "bit" in information theory. Some of this anachonism became annoying to me (such as when the townspeople take to calling the aliens' hidden recording devices "bugs" because they were so small.) But, the book excels at the "big ideas" and certainly is deserving of the Heinlein award it received.
Let's put it this way. I quoted from the book in this post on my blog. There were some fundamental religious issues addressed by the book, including whether or not aliens can become Christians, and the problem of evil in the world.
I wasn't sure that Flynn really needed the contemporary scientists. The action, and characters, from the past were the main part of the novel, and quite enough to make it worth reading.