Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Readings 2K9: Artifact

by Gregory Benford

I don’t enjoy writing a wise-ass review. If nothing else, it means I’ve just spent time reading a bad book. But in general, I understand how much work writing is, and how much of the self is invested in a written work, especially a novel length work. So usually I think even a bad book is worth a serious response. Still, there are books which test that attitude; books which read as particularly half-assed, or which feature particularly ugly characterisation — negative portrayals of a particular ethnicity or gender, say — or simply especially simplistic, ugly prose. Which brings me to Gregory Benford’s Artifact, a book that comes close to hitting all of the above.

Let me begin by saying this is a boring, slow book. It opens with an archaeological dig in Greece in the late 1990s, something like fifteen years after the book’s publication in 1984. American archaeologists find a peculiar cubical artifact in a tomb from about 1500 BC, but are chased away by the agent of a new nationalist and socialist Greek government. This man, Kontos, is aggressively unpleasant: a trained archaeologist with a military rank and a tendency to violence, he sexually assaults, or tries to, the female leader of the Americans. The Americans leave at his order, then sneak back to the dig site (with the novel’s main character, a mathematician who came over from the States to work some scientific equipment, in tow) to recover their work, and end up stealing the whole artifact. That takes about 200 pages. Back in the US, they discover the thing’s radioactive, and set about trying to figure out why; that’s good for about another 150 pages. The final 150 pages of the book is about the scientists and the US military trying to prevent an explosion on the level of a 100-megaton blast, despite the interference of those pesky Greeks.

First off, the book’s got a basic problem: how do you justify the theft of a priceless historical artifact from its country of origin? One way is by portraying pretty much every single Greek person in the book as aggressive, stupid, and/or incompetent. The book does that. Another is to handwave the question away by saying it’s not important. The book does that, too. The point is: for the book to have a plot (however slow in developing), the Americans have to get the artifact back to the States to study it. So they do. I don’t understand why the book couldn’t have been about Greek scientists and archaeologists studying the artifact in Greece; at least that way, a sub-plot about war between Greece and Turkey wouldn’t feel like a tacked-on kludge to force characters to be in certain spots at certain times in order to build up to something resembling a proper conclusion. Which is basically what the subplot feels like now.

At any rate, the book’s one-sided portrayal of Greeks is in keeping with its one-sided portrayal of pretty much everybody. If Benford dislikes a certain group, you really get to know about it. Notably, you can tell whether he prefers humanities like archaeology or hard science like physics: at a description of a physics conference, one character sees the physicists “answering questions, handing out preprints, defending their ideas. It seemed very far from the meetings of archaeologists, who tended to hold forth in lengthy verbal talks illustrated by slides in darkened rooms, answering questions only briefly at the very end. That bull-moose pattern, trumpeting one’s position from a lordly lectern, had always irritated her. The physicists, with their unassuming posters, flatly displayed to lure an audience by snagging their curiosity, seemed more honest and democratic than the humanists.” Yeah, one thinks, dirty filthy humanists, probably the kind of people who’d point out that bit about the ‘honesty’ of the posters, which ‘lure’ despite being ‘unassuming’, and mutter things like “incoherent” or “contradictory” or “Orwellian”. Or maybe just “goofy”. (And then likely go on about the redundancy of "verbal talks".)

Anyway, the preceding quote is pretty much of a piece with the book’s view of things. One of the minor characters of the book is an archaeologist high up in academe; he’s a pencil-necked dweeb who ignores the female archaeologist character and believes whatever the evil male Greek archaeologist says, because of professional courtesy. Physicists, by contrast, are uniformly clever, funny, and respectful of people of the opposite gender (which is always female). We’re told that one of the physicists has a reputation as a ladies’ man, but this turns out to be a smear by those evil humanists.

The book tries to talk about gender roles and old-boys-networks — in the context of those archaeologists, of course — by having one of the main characters be female. You can tell because she’s tough and independent, with a fierce outer shell that she’s had to put up to protect herself from the male gazes around her. Yes, she does end up being rescued by the main male character at the climax of the book, why do you ask? And, yes, she does end up happily married to the same character, who after all is the only man she feels secure enough with to let her inner fears and tensions surface through her take-no-shit exterior. We could see this coming early in the book, you see, when said male character looks at her in her skirt, and wonders to himself whether she might wear garters instead of pantyhose. Guess what? We find out in an aside a few dozen pages later that she does! Of course, it’s because of a tendency to yeast infections, and not for any objectifying sexual reasons. Naturally. So that’s okay. Anyway, the point is, clearly these two were made for each. He’s a bland, generic southerner, she’s a walking stereotype and occasional fetish object. What could be better?

Mind you, the absence of characterisation in the two leads is matched by the absence of character in the rest of the book as well. Everybody’s bland (scientists, agents of the American government) or else straight out of central casting (the comic-opera military strongman who gives the book what passes for a villain). There are no surprises here, only stereotypes. One of the physicists in the book, for example, is a brilliant Italian. So, of course, he’s quiet, thoughtful, reserved. Right? Oh no he bloody isn’t. He’s extravagant and waves his hands about a lot. Sadly, he is also the closest thing to a memorable character in the book.

So the book is not good; it’s slow, somehow turning a story about a global drift toward war into a chore to read, and the characters are flat. Is it aggressively stupid enough to deserve mocking? I think so, yes. It’s not that Claire, the female archaeologist, finds that US Navy men are uniformly “quick, intelligent, and disciplined without being rigid” (she walks in on a group of them aboard ship sitting around watching a PBS documentary); I mean, you know, okay, why not? It’s that it’s part of a pattern of the way the US is presented in the book — “worshipful” is perhaps the adjective I want here, though “adoring” could fit as well. Basically, this is a book in which Americans are always superior to foreign-types, and indeed are unjustly persecuted (we’re told) round the world. So sad.

The thing of it is ... and the reason why I feel the tone of this review is appropriate ... between 1967 and 1974, Greece was ruled by a military junta backed by the United States. The junta was notable for mass arrests, use of torture, and the deprivation of civil rights for the population of Greece. Bill Clinton formally apologised for America’s support for the junta (which some people have described as a fascist government) in 1999. For Benford to write a book in 1984 in which he portrays Greeks as being, essentially, stooges who turn toward Marxism for no reason, and as anti-American for no valid cause, is ... ‘troubling’ is probably the mildest word usable. There’s no mention whatsoever of the American-backed junta, no basis given for the attitudes of the Greeks in the book. Why did he write the Greeks so negatively in the first place? One wonders whether he saw some article about anti-Americanism in Greece in the early 80s, or perhaps reacted to the election of socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou (who had talked about withdrawing from NATO in his election campaign — he didn’t follow through, but Greece’s withdrawal from NATO in the book is presented as a sign of their essential wrongheadedness). In any event, it underscores the essential cluelessness of the novel.

In the end, politics are perhaps less significant from a reader’s angle (weirdly, a disclaimer on the book's copyright page claims that "The political views stated or implied in this novel do not reflect those of the author", which I don't even know what to do with) than the book’s uninteresting central premise — it’s just dull as ditchwater, a scientific what-if unconnected to any human question or theme — and the unremitting blandness of the prose. The sentences have minimal variation in their structure, no real complexity, and an impoverished vocabulary. The characters don’t sound as intelligent as their positions would suggest they have to be; on one level, that strains credibility, but on another level, it’s a reflection of the book’s overall dullness.

Not recommended.

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