‘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.
It was very popular in 1930s SF literature to have as one’s heroes two men (one often a scientist and the other a more active type) and one or two women (one sometimes the relative of one of the men and in a potentially romantic entanglement with the other).
Here we have this arrangement, with an All-American trio, but with the unusual setting of Bermuda.
Ghosts have been seen, white figures floating about the countryside and now women have been going missing. White women only. The native women have been left unmolested.
The trio soon discover that a man called Tako has arrived from the fourth dimension, originally to capture women as slaves and mistresses, since the population of his world has been decimated following a terrible war.
Tako then sets his sights on a full-scale invasion, beginning with New York.
Cummings seems to relish destroying New York, all of its enormous buildings collapsing on themselves as transdimensional bombs are placed in their foundations. The only building left standing is the Empire State Building which is housing the deadly weapon of destruction.
It is interesting to compare this with Sewell Peaslee Wright’s ‘The Infra-Medians’ as they both feature a trio of protagonists as described earlier and creatures from another dimension, although it is a much shorter piece.
One is intrigued by the suggestion that aliens are only interested in white women which says a lot more about the demographic of the readership than it does about the writer.
There is, one imagines, a long history of the foreign invader coming to one’s land and bearing off one’s women. Was Cummings writing for a primarily white young male audience, playing on deep-seated fears or exploiting fairly recent mythology which had already been enhanced by similar tales of female kidnap. Burroughs used it as a plot device several times, but then, if you have a kidnapped princess, it at least gives the hero something to do. The nature of the kidnapper, however, can often throw up some interesting cultural questions.
“terror quest on the misty planet
GREEN MAN’S BURDEN
Anthony Taylor sat watching the wealthy Borden Harper on his multi-vision screen.
‘Is there any more news about the – the Greenies?’ the interviewer was asking.
‘None at all.’ Harper dropped his voice to a deep sober sincerity. ‘We keep on trying, But I’m afraid we are just going to have to face the unpleasant fact that the Greenies are nothing more than human-looking animals…’
Anthony could contain his detestation no longer. Snatching the cushion, he rammed it violently into the speaker-grill, wishing he could ram it down Harper’s throat. Harper and the other humans on Venus, milking it of its miraculous beans, using the green-skinned natives to cultivate the crop, because that’s all they could be trained to do. They had no language, no human-style intelligence, no cultural potential, nothing.
Anthony grabbed up a dummy piano-keyboard savagely. He struck out a crisp-edged series of chords, double-handed, up the keyboard. The notes were sharp, precise sounds.
‘Not bad..’ he said, aloud. ‘For an animal!’
CAST OF CHARACTERS
When he found himself running out of pills, he knew he could no longer pass for human.
She seemed to be a beautiful woman, but how long could she keep up the deception?
A psychiatrist of questionable sanity, he held thousands of Venusians under his sway.
THE OLD MAN
He had the power to wipe out all the human settlements on Venus.
That was the only name she had, for what use did Greenies have for names?
Though he was the richest man on Venus, he really knew very little about the source of his wealth.”
Blurbs from the 1965 M-127 Ace Double Edition.
Anthony Taylor is an accomplished and talented musician, able to reproduce any classical piece from memory on a keyboard, and able to tune any piano. In a future where classical music has become unpopular his work is playing for the customers of a downtown bar.
One evening, Borden Harper, one of the richest men on Venus, turns up at the bar and, amazed at Anthony’s playing, returns with another two ‘chance’ discoveries, a tenor and a soprano, Martha Merrill. Harper offers them the chance to travel to Venus and perform to the humans living under the domes on the misty planet.
The Venusians have become rich due to a miracle bean which seems to cure all ailments. This is gathered and harvested by the green humanoid denizens of Venus, the Greenies, who have been identified as being ‘nothing more than human-looking animals…’
However, Anthony has a secret. All his life he has had to take anti-tan treatment in order to make his skin white, otherwise he would revert to his natural colour of green. He begins to suspect that his new colleague, Martha, is also a secret Greenie and once on Venus, with no supply of anti-tan to preserve their secret, the green begins to show.
Anthony and Martha, fearing that they would be in danger (given the attitude of the human Venusians to Greenies) flee into the wild steaming jungles. There they discover that the Greenies are not the mindless animals that the humans believed them to be, and the secret of how the pair came to be living on Earth.
For 1965, the style is somewhat dated, although the initial scenes on Earth are very interesting, foretelling a world more interested in manufactured music and videoscreens than what might be termed as ‘proper live music’. Phillifent evidently knows his classical music and no doubt at the time, at the age of 49, was wrestling with the concepts of music of the Beatles generation.
There are some obvious points made regarding capitalism and exploitation – this is in a sense a 1960s version of the film ‘Avatar’ – but given the restriction on length of Ace Doubles, doesn’t manage to explore the pros and cons of the respective lives of Venusian Humans and Greenies.
‘At the furthest reaches of the galaxy exist The Thousand Cultures, run by humans and drawing together through the new technology of instantaneous travel. Giraut and Margaret work as professional diplomats, easing the entry of new and diverse societies into The Thousand Cultures.
Their new mission is to prevent war between two cultures on the terrifyingly hostile world of Briand, all the time battling its harsh environment and trying not to let the strain of the task affect their own relationship.’
Blurb from the 1999 Millennium paperback edition.
Barnes’ sequel to the impressive ‘A Million Open Doors’ sees cultural agents from the Council of Humanity’s Special Projects Office Giraut Leones and his wife Margaret, sent to the 1.3 gravity world of Briand.
The backstory is that Humanity has been spread over numerous planets for hundreds of years, each of which is home to one or more cultures, some of which are (or were) recreated dead cultures from Earth’s past.
Most of the cultures have now been reassimilated into ‘Interstellar culture’ mainly due to the fact that ancient alien artifacts have been discovered on several worlds, and the Council of Humanity wants a united Human race to meet the inevitable First Contact.
Briand is a literary work of art in itself. It is a volcanic poisonous world whose only habitable areas are two island plateaux. On these were settled recreated Tamil and Mayan civilisations. Unfortunately, the Mayan plateau was rendered uninhabitable by a volcano eruption and the Mayans had to relocated on the Tamil plateau.
Tensions between the two cultures run high and the OSP agents are sent in to attempt a diplomatic solution.
Barnes’ scene-setting, descriptive skills and characterisation are top-notch and meld to produce a complex and compelling novel.
The Mayans, in an apparent bid to offer the hand of friendship, produce a prophet, Ix; a highly charismatic and Messianic figure whose charm and wisdom seduce many, but it may be that this is only the first move in a convoluted game of diplomatic and political chess in which all become embroiled.
It’s a novel about relationships (between individuals and cultures); about the nature of Truth, the power and danger of fundamentalist belief systems and it’s also about love.
The simmering hatred of the two cultures for each other is contrasted with the marriage of Giraut and Margaret, whose failure to communicate with each other is mirrored by the tension between the Mayans and the Tamils.