Eifelheim: Using sci-fi to ponder cultural, religious and philosophical beliefs

We are all familiar with the ‘fish out of water’ trope in fiction. The country bumpkin in the city, the city dweller in the countryside (City Slickers) or the foreigner in another land (Coming to America) – these kinds of stories have used culture clashes as a basis for humor and melodrama. In the 80’s there were some ‘fantasy’ movies in Hollywood which explored this trope from various angles, e.g. Splash (mermaid among land-dwellers; almost literally ‘fish out of water’!), Big (corporate world from a kid’s perspective) and even Cocoon (senior citizens suddenly able to participate in the activities of younger people).

And of course, using time travel as a device opens up many entertaining possibilities. A big part of the charm of the Back to the Future movies was seeing Marty McFly try to navigate a culture from 30 years in his past. Surprisingly, Hollywood didn’t repeat this successful formula in later years; subsequent time travel movies like 12 Monkeys (1995), Source Code (2011) and Looper (2012) have used time displacement as an element in a mystery/ thriller rather than to explore cultural differences.

Given the pressure to pack maximum entertainment into a 2-hour movie, perhaps it’s the written word that provides better opportunities. Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is perhaps one of the earliest such examples. Twain used the time travel device as a satire of feudalism and the monarchy, both concepts that the American ideal is diametrically opposed to.

In modern sci-fi, several novels feature present-day humans sent into the past, usually into times of conflict, thereby giving an opportunity to showcase their superiority in weapons and technology.

In this sub-genre, a very entertaining novel I read some years ago is Eric Flint’s 1632 (published in 2000), in which the fictional town of Grantville in West Virginia (about 3 miles in radius) is mysteriously displaced in time and space, back to the year 1631 and transferred to the German province of Thuringia, right into the midst of the Thirty Years’ War. The book spawned a number of sequels and Eric Flint even encouraged fan fiction set in this universe to the point that several such stories were published from time to time in the anthology series, The Grantville Gazette.

S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time (published 1998) tells of a similar incident in which the island of Nantucket is transported back to the Bronze Age (1250 BC), in fact into the midst of the Trojan War! This novel too spawned sequels and spin-offs.

John Birmingham’s Axis of Time trilogy (published 2004-07) is the very entertaining story of a US-led naval task force operating in the Pacific theatre in the year 2021, which is accidentally transported back into the midst of World War II, due to the malfunction of an experimental weapon on-board one of their ships.

American historian Taylor Anderson has written the Destroyermen series (Into the Storm published in 2008 and book #15 due in June 2020) in which an American destroyer and a Japanese battlecruiser engaging in the Pacific during World War II are mysteriously transported to an alternate Earth. In this variation, they are transported to the same time and space, but in this version of Earth, humans don’t exist and the world is populated by two other sentient species, one evolved from Lemurs and the other from velociraptors.

These three sci-fi series all focus on the impact of introducing modern technology into a historical conflict situation. The modern-day time-travelers inevitably end up taking sides in the existing conflict, their technological advantage partly neutralized by their unfamiliarity with terrain and culture, or perhaps due to one of their own people switching sides to fulfill ambitions of power. There are always sub-plots – people from the different time periods falling in love or misunderstandings resulting from cultural differences, especially related to racial and gender equality. In the hands of a skillful writer, these situations can very effectively force the readers examine their own beliefs and prejudices; aspects of daily life that we take for granted can appear very fragile when seen in the context of a culture where those things are unacceptable.

There’s another group of time-travel books featuring ‘professional’ time-travelers.

Michael Crichton’s Timeline, has a group of scientists using time-travel technology to go back to the year 1357 in the Dordogne region of France.

Similarly, Connie Willis’ Oxford Time Travel series has Oxford researchers using a time-travel machine to go back and study major events in history.

And, Neal Stephenson’s outstanding The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., is an entertaining romp about the impact of sending people back in time, or even worse, bringing people from the past into our time.

In these books, the protagonists know that they can come back to their own time and this makes their behaviour very different from that of the ‘accidental’ time-travelers. When you have made a one-way trip into the past and you know you have to assimilate yourself into a new culture quickly in order to survive, that makes for a very interesting story dynamic.

It is exactly that ‘one-way trip’ dynamic which operates in the book I am currently reading, Michael Flynn’s award-winning 2006 novel Eifelheim. It features a very similar situation to that of the novels mentioned earlier, a technologically advanced group of people suddenly appears in a small town in the Black Forest in 1348, just as the Black Death is sweeping through Europe. The twist is that the visitors are not time travelers or even human; they are an insectoid-humanoid species of aliens whose inter-dimensional ship has crash landed in the woods near the village and realize they cannot ever leave. The novel explores many interesting themes. This is a time when Jews are being burned across Europe as many believe that they are poisoning drinking wells or in some other way carrying the cause of the plague. There are some in the village who wonder if these creatures are the cause. Others simply cannot accept their presence, believing that if man is made in the image of God, then surely these non-humans must be representatives of Satan. Naturally, they fall back upon the comfort and security of their religious beliefs as a means of self-preservation. Ironically, the most open-minded of the villagers is  Pastor Dietrich, who tries to analyze how the existence of these creatures impacts his own beliefs and fits into his theological view of the world. Eventually, a couple of the aliens convert to Christianity; this act helps increase their acceptance among the locals, but some, including Dietrich’s own adopted daughter just cannot overcome their prejudices and xenophobia.

As conflict and disease close in on the little town, both humans and aliens are forced to come together in an uneasy alliance for mutual self-preservation. And indeed this is the way of the world. Our lizard brain seems programmed to classify everyone we meet automatically into ‘ally’ or ‘threat’ – Us vs. Them. But when faced with a common external threat, survival instincts kick in and suddenly yesterday’s enemies become today’s allies (not necessarily friends).

I enjoy reading these types of novels, as much for the insight into bygone people and cultures, as for the action-adventure. But after a few books, the experience has become repetitive because in almost all cases, the modern protagonists are transported into Europe (I guess that’s the culture that western authors are familiar with and are confident writing about); the exception is Australian author John Birmingham who chose to place the action in his Axis of Time trilogy close to home, in the waters between Indonesia and Japan. It would be cool if there were stories like this set in Asia, perhaps during the time of Genghis Khan in Central Asia or the Edo period in Japan or the Mughals in India.

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