Gregory Benford
Artifact (1985)
Reviewed: 2001-12-31

Judging from this novel, Benford enjoyed a vacation in Greece and took a liking to the countryside but less so to the people. Or at least that's the impression from the initial setting he chose for Artifact. Around the turn of the millennium, a combined American-Greek archaeological team is excavating a 3,500-year old Mycenaean tomb. Personal and political tensions are high, with Greece being taken over by a Nazi-style party that incites an outpouring of nationalism and anti-Americanism. The leading scientist on the Greek side is also a party official and quickly set up as the principal villain of the story. Just when he unilaterally orders the work to be terminated, a strange artifact is found. From there ensues a game of cops and robbers over the possession of the mysterious black limestone cube—an artifact that will prove to be much more than a simple archaeological curiosity. Closer examination of its physical properties yields unbelievable results.

Blending archaeology and speculative physics, the author is clearly more at home in the latter territory. This is one of the few novels that tries to capture the exhilaration of scientific discovery, although it doesn't hold up in this respect to, say, James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars. Benford stirs in a healthy dose of human drama, which unfortunately proves far less captivating. Boy meets girl, scientist needs to secure tenure, the same old story.

Interestingly, although only written about one and a half decades ago, the novel already shows signs of aging. Greece slides into war with Turkey without the European Union (or European Community, as it was called at the time of writing) ever being mentioned. In several scenes I expected people to flip out cellphones, but these are completely absent. The times are changing fast nowadays.

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