Gregory Benford,
Artifact
(Eos, 1998)

Archaeology and particle physics do not have a lot in common but something they do share is the application of the scientific method for the purposes of exploration -- humanity's past being the territory over which one ranges, and the fundamental fabric of the universe the other's. Gregory Benford skilfully exploits this point of intersection between the two disciplines in creating his science fiction thriller Artifact.

First the SF: the setting is the near future (California has just voted to divide into two states) and the novel postulates feasible, novel scientific discoveries. The thrills are a consequence of the fact that the catalyst for these discoveries is the examination of an object (the artifact of the title) unwittingly uncovered by an American archaeologist in the course of her excavations at a site in Greece, a country that becomes rapidly more politically unstable at the story unfolds. Further, this object is dangerous -- very, very dangerous indeed.

Let's be clear, this novel is not themed on the rediscovery of a piece of alien technology from humankinds's past, the drama comes purely from the "cold equations" of how the universe in general and this object in particular is put together. Thus the artifact moves in accordance with its own remorseless logic, a logic derived from the sub-atomic forces at work in its core. As the young physicist John Bishop and the beautiful archaeologist Claire Anderson team up to overcome the many and varied human obstacles that prevent them from merely studying the object, much less confronting the threat it poses, the reader is made more and more aware that this universe is indifferent to the petty machinations, or indeed the fate of the intelligent creatures inhabiting this single small planet. Such indifference is a classic theme in SF going as far back as H. G. Wells' tale The Star (1897) in which a wandering planet enters our solar system and, as it flies by, causes millions to die as the surface of the Earth is convulsed by thermal and gravitational forces.

As expected from an author who is a professor of physics the scientific extrapolation and invention in Artifact is, as far as I can judge, impeccable (and there is a technical afterword to help you judge for yourself). But this is science fiction, not science, and consequently more is expected. For example, rumbling always in the background, and managing to separate the two scientists from the artifact, is worsening political instability in Greece. The cause of this unrest is mass unemployment -- the novel's scenario simply reruns the events of the German Weimar Republic that brought Hitler to power. And the scientists' principal Greek antagonist is a military colonel who displays much of the latter's personality traits along with the accompanying nationalistic and xenophobic fanaticism. While it is true that no political system is or ever will be immune to the disease of despotism, the book never makes credible how, upon its re-emergence in the 21st century, such despotism is found to be wearing exactly the same old mask.

In describing Byzantine inter-university politics and academic infighting the author is, understandably given his background, on surer ground and these sections of the book ring true. Well done also is the inter-spacing of the developing relationship between John and Claire with developments in the adventure to capture the artifact. However, the author's reliance on clichˇ and consequent failure to convey any real sense of a different place and time (a unique and well-imagined near-future) takes the edge off this novel.

Artifact exemplifies how difficult it is to write good science fiction, that is a work that engages the reader on two fundamental levels. Any reader after having been invited by an author to think hard on a scientific matter, who then does so, and having done so continues with the book has, in some sense, passed a test set for them by the author. But now that the reader has passed this test there comes in turn one for the author and it is this: the parts of the book separate from the purely scientific (that is the "plot" or "story line") must now measure up to the standard set by the scientific content, otherwise the reader is likely to feel cheated or bored or both. That even a SF author as distinguished as Gregory Benford doesn't always succeed in passing this test, as here, shows just how difficult it can be.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 10 November 2001



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