I don't usually like conspiracy theory stories, but this one, based on Babbage engines, is just such fun!
Several linked short stories about nanotechnology
Many of these stories don't start out explicitly as SF: some might be historical accounts, some mainstream stories. But things gradually get odder... And some of stories are deliberate stylistic exercises. For these reasons, this collection doesn't rank quite as highly, for me, as his earlier Nanotech Chronicles: the stories here are certainly very well written and, in at least one case, extremely moving, but I do like a bit more overt science in my SF.
In the present day, Tom is using mathematical methods to investigate historical processes, and discovers a village that has been mysteriously missing since the Middle Ages: theory says it should have been resettled, but it hasn't. And why was it renamed Eifelheim after it was abandoned? Meanwhile his partner Sharon is developing a new theory of fundamental physics. Gradually it turns out that these investigations are interlinked.
In 1348, the Germanic village of Oberhochwald, nervously listening to rumours about the "pest" (Black Death) sweeping through nearby towns, receives a mysterious group of visitors from very far away. Father Dietrich, a student of the most modern methods of logic and science, determines that they are not demons, and cautiously sets about trying to convert them. But disaster is always hovering in the wings.
The "now" part of this was originally published as a short story in 1986. The new "then" part fills out the backstory of what was really going on in Oberhochwald, and forms the majority of the novel. This is a fascinating read. The aliens (for that is of course what they are) are in one sense less alien than the humans, with their very different 14th Century world-view. Flynn very cleverly allows this Mediaeval point of view to emerge gradually: to start with, the highly educated Dietrich seems almost "modern" in his beliefs and outlook, with his rational scientific arguments, and his understanding of machinery. But after a while, it becomes clear that both his axiom base and the scientific material he is using are very different, leading to some startling flights of reason. Both his religion and his weird Mediaeval natural philosophy fully permeate his thinking: "fire atoms are tetrahedral, with many sharp points". The aliens have a more modern understanding of physics, cosmology, and medicine, which is rendered into Dietrich's language and concepts through a translation device; this requires the reader to translate them back into modern English to understand them, although occasionally Dietrich suggests a word of Greek origin to act as a signifier (a clever device that allows the reader to realise that our modern highfalutin terms are often just simple concepts expressed in an obscure elite language). This need for translation leads to great potential for misunderstanding, particularly as the aliens take rather literally some of Dietrich's religious pronouncements. There are several passages where one side explains their concepts to the other, and both sides believe they are communicating and agreeing, but the reader realises they have said two completely different things.
It is interesting thinking about some of the Mediaeval point of view. At one point Dietrich is explaining to one of the aliens why time can't be "pressed":
I started off thinking: motion is just change of place, why these other three? Oh, okay: these others are motion in some kind of abstract state space, a more general notion of change with time. But, why these specific state spaces? Could these people have gone on from their discrete and separate spaces of "substance, quality, quantity, place" on to generalise to the concept of abstract space? What was interesting from the book is the reason why, despite a science-grounded curriculum, great scientific promise, and relatively little religious problem, they didn't: the Black Death. (The horrific symptoms are described in graphic detail, and ought to be required reading for anyone hankering after living in "simpler times".) And, of course, these kinds of thoughts lead on to: how much of our current science will look equally quaint, ridiculous, or obscure, a few centuries from now?
This isn't all interesting philosophical discourse (although the bit where a passing William of Ockham uses his razor to prove that the sun goes round the earth, rather than the earth rotating, is fun). There is also a lot of interesting politics, religion, history, "everyday tale of country folk in a Medieval village", and, of course, bubonic plague. This is all woven together into a fascinating tale, made all the more poignant by the looming tragedies waiting for the aliens and for the humans. A sort of Doomsday Book meets "Uncleftish Beholding" meets Dr Mirabilis#717, with aliens. Recommended.
Meanwhile, Bridget ban has organized a posse—a pack of Hounds—to go in pursuit of her kidnapped daughter, despite knowing that Ravn Olafsdottr kidnapped the harper precisely to lure Bridget ban in her wake. The Hound, the harper, and the scarred man wind deeper into a web of deceit and treachery certain of only one thing: nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems to be.