Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stealing Science

Caught up in the action and thrills of an Indiana Jones adventure, we sometimes forget that Jones is a thief. In fact, he is the worst kind of thief the archaeological community knows. He steals unique antiquities, sneaking them away from their sites; and then sells them to collectors, destroying forever the intellectual value they might have had in situ.

Gregory Benford's Artifact starts centuries ago, with a mysterious stone artifact being buried in a tomb. But each time we think we have this story pinned firmly into a genre, it morphs on us; first Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, then James Bond and Dr. No. 

With a flashback to ancient times, we learn the cube-shaped artifact is an object of power; we see that some of the grave-diggers were entombed with it. Fast-forward to present day (or rather, to a mid-1980s "present" with a still-viable Soviet Union). The artifact has been unearthed at an archaeological dig. Because the nominal leader of the dig, American Claire Anderson, has a beef with 
Kontos, the swinish Greek she has been saddled with as "co-director," she does not reveal that she and her assistant George have found the artifact. Instead, under a two-week deadline to finish the dig, she flies back to the States and seeks a metallurgist from MIT to come back to Greece and help her assay the stone of the artifact.

She meets John Bishop in his office at MIT, and hires him to do the job. John doesn't tell Claire he is a mathematician, not a physical scientist, for two reasons. One, he likes scuba diving, and hopes to be able to dive in Greece when this job is done. And two, he's really attracted to Claire.

Back at the tomb, George has finished disinterring the artifact, and found a pipe leading down to the sea behind it. John's test results are puzzling—they reveal a cubical cavity inside the artifact, lined with heavy metals. From an amber cone that projects from one face of the stone cube, they glimpse an occasional flash of light. A slight humming noise comes from the object, and it has an eerie feel to the touch.

When Kontos gets nasty and moves the deadline up to two days, Claire decides to publish her study of the artifact first. This will give her academic advantage to undo the lies Kontos has told about her. Unfortunately, Kontos finds out about the artifact, and expels all three Americans, keeping all of Claire's notes and drawings, John's data and equipment, and the artifact itself.

The three get away from the Greeks who are trying to ship them out of the country, and return to the dig for Claire's notes. By accident, they are locked into the tomb and the artifact is pushed down the pipe. John has to go down after it, then climb back up from the ocean to unlock the door. As they leave, they decide to take the artifact back to the States with them.

Up to this point, they assume they are working with an ancient artifact. When the MIT group begins doing tests in earnest, they discover that the stone cube contains a powerful natural magnetic "bottle" and the bottle contains a microscopic singularity—a black hole. The only trouble is, there should be a pair of them for stability. Unstable, the single singularity is producing sheets of gamma radiation, and gradually eating away at its bottle.

And the other half of the pair, left behind in Greece, will be eating away at the world on a least-distance path between it and the cube, trying to get back into the bottle with its mate.

Benford has woven several disparate elements together into this skillful tapestry. Archaeology and academic power-mongering fight with vigor 
(though with less blood), equal to the political and cultural battles of the Greeks who are striving to keep their antiquities in the country. Claire's feminism vies with John's southern views of femininity and family. And the MIT physicists and mathematicians struggle to define and contain this genie in the bottle.

Like David Brin's The Practice Effect and Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio, this is a book that vaulted the author into the ranks of science fiction's "Killer Bs." It is the best kind of science fiction there is, demanding your full attention, changing only one element, than asking what happens if this is true?

You can buy The Artifact for Kindle right now for just 99 cents!