‘In a 3500-year-old Mycenaean Tomb, an artifact has been unearthed. An incomprehensible object in an impossible place; its age, purpose and origins unknown.
Its substance has scientists baffled. And the miracle it contains does not belong on this Earth.
It is an enigma with no equal in recorded history and its discovery has unleashed a storm of intrigue, theft and espionage that is pushing nations to the brink of war.
It is mankind’s greatest discovery… and worst nightmare.
It may already have obliterated one world. Ours is next.’
Blurb from the 2001 orbit paperback edition.
I find myself being rather ambivalent about Benford novels. Admittedly, the science is as accurate as it possibly could be, and if it does get above some people’s heads, Benford has provided an afterword in which he gives a ‘Quarks for Dummies’ lecture in some of the more important aspects of subatomic particles.
‘Timescape’ is a novel which, although listed in Pringle’s ‘100 Best SF Novels’, is rather dull and lacks pace and background colour.
‘Foundation’s Fear’ suffered from both a lack of characterisation and a sense of disjointedness in that the narrative was attempting to follow both Seldon and a pair of resurrected AI simulations.
‘Artifact’ however, is a very readable if lightweight piece, but does have its faults.
In structure it resembles very much the outline for a film including a short prologue sequence (which in a film would be shown before the main credits) set 3500 years in the past before the next chapter brings us bang up to modern day at the same location.
Claire Anderson is a feisty Boston Irish archaeologist excavating a Mycenaean tomb under the watchful eye of the Greek authorities, while Greece itself is transforming into a One-Party Socialist State.
Kontos, a brutish Greek archaeologist turned politician, is attempting to oust the Americans from the dig. Claire then discovers a strange cube within the tomb, carved from black stone with an amber cone protruding from the forward surface.
Tests on the cube produce curious results. It is, for one thing, radioactive.
Kontos proves to be a lecherous Greek as well as a Socialist. After a final showdown Kontos has the cube packed up, prepared to claim it as his own find. Claire and US mathematician John Bishop return to the tomb and reclaim not only Claire’s notes but the cube, which they feel quite entitled to carry off to the US with them.
Benford makes no attempt to question the moral basis of this. Indeed, it seems implicit within the text that such an act is necessary as the US is the only country capable of examining and learning the secrets of such an object, and the Greeks of course, would only be interested in it for its military capabilities, while the Americans, God Bless them, would be concerned only for the pursuit of science and the artifact’s peaceful applications.
The Greeks attempt to reclaim the artifact, but are thwarted, so they declare war on Turkey instead.
This may seem a flippant over-simplification of Benford’s portrayals, but had he attempted to put some shades of grey into depictions of the two races this would have been a far superior book. The American characters are uniformly honest, decent people while the Greeks are two-dimensional caricatures; corrupt, devious, lecherous and violent.
On a Hollywood level, America (and indeed the UK if one considers Bond movies to be representative of British cinema) often gets away with portraying evil foreign regimes in this cliched way, but one could argue that many recent productions of this type are aware of the ironic nature of their depictions, which border on self-parody, particularly in the case of contemporary Bond movies and Vin Diesel’s ‘XXX’
One expects an author in this day and age, particularly an SF author, to be more aware of the political and social nuances. No regime is truly evil. No democracy is truly good.
Sadly, the whole badly thought out political nonsense tends to detract from the artifact itself, a natural trap for two bound singularities (like two big quarks) one of which has been jarred loose but is returning like a heat-seeking monster to find its twin.
It’s a shame really. If there were less of the political and racial polarisation, this could have been something half decent.
Gibson’s debut novel is a multi-character narrative space opera much in the style of Peter F Hamilton
Mankind has been able to travel out to the stars due to the discovery of Angel Stations; vast torus-shaped space stations surrounding wormholes which give instantaneous access to other stations in other parts of the galaxy.
The study of abandoned Angel tech has been a mixed blessing. It has allowed Earth to design probes which have been sent as far as possible toward the galactic core and which have discovered that processes have been set up to automatically set off novas and flood the galaxy with lethal radiation at very long but regular intervals.
The radiation is due to arrive at the planet Kaspar in days, and is likely to kill off the only other sentient race that humanity has discovered, currently at a pre-industrial feudal culture level.
Humans have also used Angel tech to alter human genes in military test subjects, producing a number of humans who are virtually indestructible and can, in some instances, see the future.
We follow a disparate group of people whose paths converge at the abandoned Angel citadel on the planet Kaspar as the wave of radiation approaches.
It’s an interesting debut, featuring echoes of Peter F Hamilton, Jack McDevitt and Fred Pohl’s ‘Gateway’.
Certainly the concept of older races ‘culling’ other life in the galaxy (usually by way of ancient machines) is a popular idea (see ‘Engines of God’, ‘Revelation Space’ and ‘Berserker’) and perhaps is in some ways a counterbalance to works in which ancient alien races are either extinct, coldly aloof or benevolent.
It’s not simply a derivative novel, however. Gibson has created some interesting concepts and has cursed the earth with a Blight, an Angel Tech derived virus which was unleashed while one of the protagonists was trying to retrieve it from one of the Earth’s criminal gangs.
Kim is a xeno-archaeologist who has the deaths of some of her colleagues on her conscience and has become addicted to absorbing ‘books’ which are the distilled memories of others. She has fallen on hard times and is working as an asteroid miner from the Angel Station in the Kaspar System.
She too has unleashed a plague of sorts, as one of the artefacts she retrieved from the Kaspar citadel during an archaeological expedition has become active. This has released self-replicating Von Neumann bugs which are slowly consuming all the human-built sections of the stations as well as their ships. The bugs are using the cannibalised material to make more bugs.
Meanwhile, members of a human cult – The Primalists – are hiding out on Kaspar in deep caves waiting for the radiation to kill all the sentient natives so that they can claim the planet as a new Eden. One of the aliens, however, is in possession of an Angel artefact that might be the key to deflecting the radiation and saving his species.
The Kasparians are an interestingly designed species able – in an odd mirroring of Kim’s addiction – to achieve sentience by eating the flesh and brains of a dead adult. Their children are pre-sentient animals and do not attain intelligence until this ritual has been carried out.
There are some loose ends left untied which no doubt means that sequels are in the pipeline.
Maybe it’s me but it seems many debut novels now are planned with sequels in mind. No one seems to want to write stand alone novels any more. Is this publisher pressure or a strategic move on the part of the author?
‘It stands at Pluto’s North Pole – a mesmerising icehenge. Slabs of ice frozen harder than stone, towering two hundred feet above the crater-pocked surface. The central slab bears an inscription in Sanskrit.
A message from an alien race? Or the mark of a human-powered voyage that might have passed this way? There were vague rumours of such a ship, forgotten decades ago. But could the crew have survived? Did the ship exist at all?’
Blurb from the 1997 Voyager paperback edition
This marvellously structured book is divided into three sections, each telling a tale from a different viewpoint, separated in time by decades or hundreds of years. The first section (a diary of Emma Weill) begins in 2248 at the start of the doomed Martian revolution against the control of the Mars Development Committee, a conglomerate of Earth Companies who are determined to squeeze as much profit from the Red Planet as possible.
Emma is a hydroponics expert on board an asteroid mining ship and become embroiled in a plot by the Mars Starship Association, who are planning to connect three separate ships and attempt to escape the Solar System; their aim being to settle on a new planet on one of our neighbouring stars. Emma sees no possibility of their completing their mission and, with many other of the crew who refuse to join the rebellion, returns to Mars where the revolution is being ruthlessly quashed.
Nearly three hundred years later, Hjalmar Nederland, an eminent archaeologist and opponent of the MDC, has been given permission to excavate the ruins of a crater, which once was a domed community, and which was destroyed during the revolution. Hjalmar is seeking to prove that it was not – as history would have it – the revolutionaries who blasted the crater, but the Committee police. During his search he discovers an abandoned vehicle containing the diary of Emma Weill.
Hjalmar has a vested interest, since he was a child living in the crater when the dome was breached. Since then, his life artificially extended by gerontology treatment, he has been driven to find the truth and expose the committee’s actions of three hundred years ago.
Sixty years later, Hjalmar’s grandson, Edmond Doya, becomes obsessed by the discovery at the North Pole of Pluto of an icehenge, a monument which is thought to prove that Emma’s starship revolutionaries left a sign of their departure, since there is mention in her diary of plans for a henge existing on the ship at the time.
But as he investigates further, he realises that what he suspects will discredit his grandfather’s life’s work.
‘Icehenge’ is interesting to read as a presage to Robinson’s Magnum Opus ‘Mars Trilogy’ in which another Martian revolution takes place, again fighting against the exploitation of Mars by Earth Multinational companies. Although a much shorter work, this is a very clever piece of writing which examines the ethics of rewriting history, and allowing the populace to believe in something which is not true. Is it morally right for any population – even if it is for their greater good – to be living in a society with a fictional history.
There are many precedents in World History, but Robinson by cleverly placing this outside our time, and bringing it down to a personal level by involving three main individuals, cuts through the obfuscation and allows us to contrast this future situation with our own.
There is also much – rather as in the work of Fred Hoyle, and which also shown in Robinson’s later work – which is critical of the relationship between politics and science, here shown by Hjalmar’s determination to find the truth despite the efforts of the Committee.
‘We are alone. That is the verdict, after centuries of Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence missions and space exploration. The only living things in the Universe are found on the Nine Worlds settled from Earth, and the starships that knit them together. Or so it’s believed, until Dr. Kimberley Brandywine sets out to find what happened to her clone-sister Emily, who, after the final unsuccessful manned SETI expedition, disappeared along with the rest of her ship’s crew.
Following a few ominous clues, Kim discovers the ship’s log was faked. Something happened out there in the darkness between the stars and she’s prepared to go to any length to find answers. Even if it means giving up her career… stealing a starship… losing her lover. Kim is about to discover the truth about her sister – and about more than she ever dared imagine.’
Blurb from the 2001 Eos paperback edition
In a future where Humanity has expanded out to a handful of settled planets and seems to have culturally stalled, Kim Brandywine is working for an institute still trying to search for Extraterrestrial Life. Kim is haunted by the death of her clone-sister Emily who was on an exploratory voyage and who disappeared, along with another member of the crew, without trace after she returned. The two male survivors of the Hunter Expedition were subsequently involved in a mysterious explosion at Mount Hope on their home planet, an area which has since had sightings of ghostly apparitions.
Emily is contacted by the grandfather of the other missing girl who believes that there is something more to their disappearance than meets the eye.
Initially cynical, Kim begins to uncover small pieces of evidence which leads her to suspect that something is very wrong with the official story of the voyage of the Hunter and, facing opposition from her employers and the families of the now-dead crew, becomes determined to uncover the truth of what happened to her sister.
McDevitt gives us a gripping scientific detective story which combines a first contact situation with brilliantly evocative moments of ghostly horror and an old unsolved murder.
Interestingly, McDevitt succeeds well in realising a planet settled some six hundred years ago which now has experts researching its own history and archaeology. It makes for a very well-rounded society, if a tad Americocentric. The structure is well thought out, although perhaps a little cinematic. It is a bit of a cliche for the hero/ine to be not believed/discredited/fired and then have to solve the mysteries while the authorities are snapping at her heels.
All in all, though, it’s a cracking piece of work. Nothing groundbreaking, just a solid piece of well-written SF with a detective thriller twist.
‘The universe has been explored – and humanity has all but given up on finding other intelligent life. Then an alien satellite orbiting a distant star sends out an unreadable signal. is it the final programmed gasp of an ancient, long-dead race? Or the first greeting of an undiscovered life form? Academy starship captain Priscilla Hutchins and the once-maligned Contact Society are about to learn the answers… to more questions than they could possibly conceive of asking.’
Blurb from the 2003 Ace paperback edition
Once more, Hutch is piloting a group of alien-hunters. This time it is the much maligned First Contact Society, who have discovered part of a transmission emanating in orbit around a neutron star.
As much as one wants to love this book (and one can’t really fault it as a decent SF novel) one can’t help feeling that McDevitt is repeating himself on several levels. Again Hutch gets close to a man, and yes, he dies tragically. Almost simultaneously, the artist Tor, one of Hutch’s ex-lovers, manages to grab himself a berth on this new expedition, along with an undertaker and a famous starlet.
It appears there is a network of stealth satellites scattered through at least our part of the galaxy and they are recording and transmitting data to somewhere else. That somewhere else happens to be an odd arrangement of gas giants, their attendant moons, rings and one building set on a moon which orbits this whole arrangement and its spectacular views.
The Retreat, as it is named, is abandoned but had two occupants who are buried nearby.
However, this is not the relay’s destination, for the party discover, refuelling from the gas-giant’s plentiful hydrogen, an asteroid converted into a ship which, it transpires, is a vast travelling storehouse of images and artefacts collected from thousands of races.
Hutch, having lost her newest man in an explosion at the neutron star, does not want more of her passengers to die, but they do. Some are attacked and eaten by angel-like aliens on an idyllic world.
Then, they insist on exploring the Chindi – as they name the ship – and, as was expected, it decides to leave.
There is then a race against time to rescue Hutch’s ex-lover, left behind on the giant asteroid ship.
Again, McDevitt’s Americocentricity is irritating, although I was amused that Hutch, accessing the news from Earth, was reading about a new serial killer in Derbyshire, a county already famous for its violence and multiple murder mayhem.
McDevitt’s aliens are irritating too, as so far, the races have not been alien enough. In the Chindi one of the first things the explorers find is a tableaux of some world where a wolf-like creature is standing before a table wearing a dinner jacket.
Thinking this through, quite apart from any issues of sexism, one has to say that the jacket, not even specifically the dinner jacket, as a fashion phenomenon, is not that recent and occupies a tiny fraction of the diverse gallimaufry of humanwear, and is also a generally western concept. For an alien race of wolf-like creatures to have come up with something similar and to have been discovered by humanity in the epoch in which this fashion was popular rather stretches my disbelief. These are Star Trek aliens, furry or bumpy-headed humanoids who think the same way we do, or at least, the same way Americans do.
‘Madison Yazoo Leake of the bombed-out, radiation-ridden 21st century wanted to go back in time to stop World War III before it began. When he stepped through the time portal he thought he was entering 1930s-era Louisiana. Instead, he found himself in a world where Arabs had explored America. Christianity and the Roman Empire had never existed and Aztecs performed human sacrifices near the Mississippi as woolly mammoths roamed nearby…’
Blurb from the 1984 Ace Science Fiction Special edition.
A secret government project in a devastated US of the 21st century sends a team of soldiers back in time in order to stop WWIII from starting.
Madison Yazoo Leake is first to go and finds himself and his horse far too far back in the past; some time around 1200 AD in fact, on the banks of the Mississippi.
Christianity is unknown to the Greek and Arab traders who have already visited America, as is any history of the Roman Empire.
The Amerindians whom he befriends are living more or less in harmony with some neighbouring Aztecs, but all that is about to change.
Meanwhile in 1929, an archaeological team in the same area is racing against time to excavate burial mounds and are coming across unusual finds, such as the skull of a horse, unknown to America at the time when the mounds were built, and, more worryingly, the remains of a brass rifle cartridge.
A company of 150 men follow Leake through the time portal and set up camp in what seems to be the same area, although there is no sign of Leake. Their initial meetings with the local tribes go well, but it appears that the troops have brought with them a contemporary infection to which the Amerindians have no resistance.
The natives – masters of guerrilla warfare – besiege the camp and slowly decimate the soldiers.
It’s a fascinating read, comprising of three narratives in alternate chapters.
The viewpoint of archaeologist Bessie Level from 1929 is told in third person narrative while Madison narrates his own story in a dry laconic first person.
Acting Adjutant Smith’s tale is told via daily troop reports, statistics and a diary.
Nominated for the Philip K Dick award it is most definitely an original and thought-provoking novel, harrowing in places, but with a streak of mordant wit running through.
One could be fooled into thinking of this as a simplistic tale of time travel but it is far more complex and intriguing than the casual reader might think, and raises questions which remain with the reader, waiting to be answered.
‘With less than three weeks to go before a rogue gas giant collides with the world known as Deepsix, Priscilla ;Hutch’ Hutchins and her crack team land on the surface to record and salvage as much of the planet’s ancient civilisation as they can before it is lost forever.
But as they struggle to make sense of this strange uninhabited world with its stone cities under ice, unexpected predators and inexplicable hints of impossible technology buried in the rubble, their only means of escape is suddenly destroyed. The clock ticks relentlessly toward an unavoidable apocalypse. They must find some way to get off Deepsix before it plunges into the depths of the rampaging gas giant.’
Blurb to the Voyager 2001 paperback edition
The sequel to ‘Engines of God’ sees Hutch – the diminutive pilot introduced in the aforesaid novel – once again involved in last-minute xeno-archaeology.
The planet Maleiva III (Deepsix) is about to be cannon-balled by a rogue gas-giant which has entered the system from the depths of space. Although explorers visited the planet twenty years previously to investigate its six-billion year old biosphere and the highly evolved predators which inhabit the world it is only now that it is about to be engulfed that evidence of a sapient but apparently extinct civilisation has been found.
Hutch, being the only pilot with a lander capable of visiting the planet and near enough to reach the planet in time, is asked to head a team to try and salvage what artefacts and evidence they can before Maleiva III is destroyed.
In ‘Engines of God’ of course, Hutch was on another planet helping a team to excavate an alien temple before terraforming destroyed all evidence. Thankfully, that is where the similarities end.
‘Deepsix’ is a much tighter novel in that McDevitt confines the action to one location and the alien mysteries, far from being a backdrop, complement the unfolding human drama and provide a perfect balance between the two.
McDevitt, as we cannot fail to be aware, is an American. He has a great eye for character and detail, but one wonders whether he ever really stopped to consider whether any interstellar culture as this could really be populated so heavily by Americans.
There is one Frenchman and a Russian, I must point out, but that seems to be McDevitt’s only concession to a multi-cultural society.
On the other hand, if the network of human colonies, ships and of course Earth itself (which seems to have been taken over by the US. The cynical columnist McAllister at one point mentions the ratings for the WorldBowl) is a metaphor for the US, then it is not a pleasant comparison, and rather a damning portrait.
‘Cale Alexandros was five years old when his family’s starship was attacked en route to Morningstar, the lone outpost of civilization on a savage planet. Cale crash-landed in the wilds, and was picked from the wreckage by brutish nomads.
For years, he was forced to endure life as a slave, until a kind trader finally freed him. But Cale never forgot what he had seen in the desert wastes… or the temple that held a book with pages made of a strange metal, and the writings he could not identify.
When he finally reaches Morningstar, Cale realises the importance of his discovery. For the book is a key to understanding an alien language. But it also holds a secret that some people want to learn – and a revelation that some will do anything to control…’
Blurb from the 2007 Ace paperback edition
A freighter making a clandestine trip to the planet Conrad’s World is attacked. The Captain asks a young woman, Sidonie, to take his five year old son, Cale Alexandros, to safety in the city of Morningstar. She and the boy escape the ship but crashland well before the city in the badlands before the Divide, a vast chasm which separates the apparently civilised city Morningstar from this area, populated by exiles, criminals and political dissidents.
Cale is dragged from the wreckage by a nomadic and savage community who treat him as a slave.
A mysterious and seemingly amoral traveller, Blackburn, offers to take Cale away with him to Morningstar, but Cale, perhaps sensing Blackburn’s nature, refuses.
Cale later escapes to another community but is beaten up after being discovered in a compromising position with a young girl and is forced to move on, during which journey he discovers a ruined temple filled with alien hieroglyphs, and a book which contains text not only in the alien characters, but translated into a number of human languages – The Rosetta Codex.
He buries the book with the body of a fellow-traveller and eventually crosses the Divide and reaches Morningstar.
Cale bumps into Blackburn with unlikely regularity, although their meetings don’t come to much. He then takes up with a xenoarchaeological cult called The Resurrectionists, and is then tracked down by his old guardian, Sidonie, whom he thought dead.
Sidonie tells him he is heir to an interplanetary corporation. After recovering The Rosetta Codex, he returns to his home world where he plans to follow the instructions in the Codex; to travel to a designated star and awaken the Emissary so that the Jaaprana may live again. He is, however, dogged by Blackburn and the cyborg Sarakheen, Justinian, who need the Codex to translate the alien technology manuals they have amassed.
It would be unfair to call Russo merely a pessimist, although on a first reading his work gives a very bleak, if realistic, assessment of the human condition. Here, we are in a human civilisation in decline. At one point, when trying to persuade Cale of the Sarakheen’s need for the Codex (their goal is to create true cyborgs, devoid of human weaknesses) they take him to a remote warehouse where the elite of this new world are watching gladiator-style fight-to-the-death combats. Blackburn’s point is that Man, though technologically blessed and having spread to the stars, cannot throw off the dark and savage animal needs that dwell within him, something that the Sarakheen would be able to do with the Codex.
There is, however, goodness in Humanity, which is evinced by Cale himself and the friends he makes. Several people help Cale and ask for little or nothing in return.
Russo’s style generally evokes a curiosity within the reader since although we move through a variety of locations and social settings we do not get a real view of the wider galactic society although it is clear from the text that interstellar human civilisation is in decline. Manufacture of interstellar ships has virtually ceased and although many colonial cities are built on the ruins of the Jaaprana cities there is very little interest in archaeological research.
Cale is given a choice at the climax of the novel and, although the choice is taken out of his hands it is no doubt a question that every reader would ask themselves. What would I have done?
The concept of Fate and Destiny is also a strong theme in this book. Cale meets Alazar on the bad side of the Divide, and is witness to one of his brother’s Harlock’s visions which appears to relate to the destiny of all three of them in retrospect.
Back on his home world, Cale, apparently coincidentally, meets the brothers again, as well as Blackburn, whose true calling and origins are never determined.
Also, Cale meets with his father’s horoscoper, who appears to have set or predicted Cale’s destiny from the time before he was stranded on Conrad’s world.
Thus the very concept of free will is brought into question, and is possibly the reason that the decision was taken out of Cale’s hands at the denouement.
‘Two hundred years ago, humans made a stunning discovery…
In the far reaches of the solar system: a huge statue of an alien creature, with an inscription that defied all efforts at translation.
Now, faster-than-light drive opens the stars to exploration, humans are finding other relics of the race they call the Monument-Makers – each different, and each heartbreakingly beautiful. But except for a set of footprints on Jupiter’s moon, Iapetus, there is no trace of the enigmatic race that has left them behind.
Then a team of scientists working on a dead world discover an ominous new image of the Monument-Makers. Somehow it all fits with other lost civilizations, and possibly with Earth’s own future. And distant past. But Earth itself is on the brink of ecological disaster – there is no time to search for answers. Even to a question that may hold the key to survival for the entire human race…’
Blurb from the 1996 Voyager paperback edition
Here, McDevitt introduces Priscilla Hutchins, known to everyone as ‘Hutch’, a pilot who works for ‘The Academy’. The Academy (it was not clear to me whether the full title was within the text or not) is a xenoarchaeological organisation, obviously working Off-Earth on sites of alien ruins.
In the 23rd Century, humanity has travelled out to the stars, finding few habitable worlds. One Earthlike world exists, but is occupied by the Nok, a pre-technological race currently engaged in a world war.
Hutch is contacted by Richard Wald, an old archaeological friend who is travelling to another world, Quraquat, whose intelligent residents seemed to have undergone periodic rises and falls in their social development before disappearing altogether.
Richard’s speciality is the Monument makers, an Elder Race who seem to have left giant sculptures lying round the galaxy. On Jupiter’s moon, Iapetus, there is an image carved in ice of one of their race while on Quraquat’s airless moon there is an impossible city built of perfectly square blocks of stone which appear a) to have no purpose and b) to have been attacked at some point by weapons which left its surface broken and charred.
The xenoarchaeologists on the surface of Quraquat are working against time to excavate a temple since Earth has deemed Quraquat to be a world which can be terraformed and used to settle a human colony.
Richard and Hutch discover clues on Quraquat which lead them to the home world of the Monument makers. It is then discovered that the periodic destruction of planetary civilisations (which appears to occur every 8000 years) is due to the intervention of some other agency.
A wave of the destructive ‘Engines of God’ appears to be issuing from deeper in the galaxy on this cyclic basis and is preset to recognise and destroy organised structures, such as right angles.
McDevitt is a proficient SF thriller writer and here once more gives us mystery, sense of wonder and cliffhangers which are bound up in the fascinating dangerous and exciting world of archaeology.
Seriously, McDevitt is at his best when his archaeologist characters are involved in their work. He obviously knows and loves his subject and is particularly astute (as most scientists/SF writers tend to be) when having to deal with the politics of the profession, which gives his work an added dimension of realism.
‘Engines of God’ is divided into three sections, which gives it a somewhat disjointed feel, despite being linked by Hutch. It isn’t helped by having one of the main characters killed at the end of section one, which, although a brave move, was possibly a mistake.