Volume 15, Number 01, Winter, 1997

The Artifact

By W. Michael Gear

(DAW, 1990)
Reviewed by Charles Curley
January 1997

One of the high points of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the scene wherein innocent Frodo offers the Ring of Power to Galadriel.

“…You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night. Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair! “…I pass the test,” she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

If ever there was a metaphor for political power, it is Tolkien’s Ring of Power, forged in the darkness, and working its corruption on all into whose hands it comes.

Gear’s Artifact is just as much a metaphor for political power. It represents political power, absolute and utter, and fully as corrupting as Tolkien or Lord Acton ever found it to be. It is capable of vast destruction, and he who controls it controls the Confederation—until the Artifact destroys the whole of the human race.

The Artifact is an alien construct, discovered by Archon, a retired privateer, and his daughter Constance. In the tradition of swashbuckling science fiction, Constance is a beautiful redhead. And like all beautiful redheads in science fiction, (see, for example, Virginia Graylock in Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos) she is also competent as a political leader and starship skipper. And, yes, there is romance in The Artifact. And, no, I’m not going to tell you who gets the guy.

Archon, reports the Artifact to the political leader of the Confederation, President Palmiere. His office leaks like a British government, and so the chase for the Artifact is on. New Maine, ruled by a monarchy, several republics, and not a few outright dictatorships, cram representatives aboard the starship Boaz. The ostensible purpose of the voyage is to convene at Star’s Rest a constitutional convention to rewrite the Confederation’s Articles. The reality is that all the governments are jockeying for the power the Artifact represents.

One of the players is the “a-political” Brotherhood, an organization which tries to control space travel and which dispenses scientific knowledge to the confederation slowly and according to its own preferences. The Brotherhood organizes the trip to Star’s Rest and provides Boaz and her captain, Solomon Carrasco.

Another player is the Gulagi, descendants of Soviet political exiles, and very much in the mold of Heinlein’s Loonies in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Their representative, Nikita Malakova, has attitudes that could have come from an L. Neil Smith novel:

“You listen, Brotherhood subverter of the masses. So long as the people are armed, they are free! Eh? You consider. What do Sirians want? To take away guns! That's what. They claim depriving masses of weapons stops crime. You ever been to Malakova Station? No? You ever been to Gulag Sector? No? Hey, you can leave door unlocked!

“Leave credit card on table in restaurant. You come back, it still there—with no charges on it. You know why? Because we…the people…shoot thieves on sight!”

The voyage is reminiscent of Randall Garrett’s exquisite short story “The Napoli Express.” A bizarre murder mystery must be solved. Meanwhile, Carrasco must wrestle with his own dark past, and fears of inadequacy. And political intrigue runs amok. And that leads the characters—and hence the author—to motivations. Perhaps Malakova is Gear’s mouthpiece:

“[Their motivation] is power. Power is like disease, it sickens and wastes soul of man. Lietov? Medea? Ben Geller? All are obsessed by power, and how to get more. Age like this breeds people so. Is time of vigor and growth and, or course, unlimited power. Like drug, it draws those who would savor narcotic. Fills gap in personality of incomplete people. Power makes them who they are. Without it they have no sense of self.”

At the end of the voyage, when some of the diplomats have shown themselves to be less than diplomatic, we are treated to the kind of swashbuckling space battles that Doc Smith wrote so well, and that George Lucas used to film. Of course the guys in the white space helmets keep the Artifact away from the bad guys. You knew that going in to the novel. But here’s the $64,000 question: now that they have it, what do they do with it? Hand it off to Kraal, the Galactic Grand Master of the Brotherhood? Gear's answer is much more elegant. You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

Charles Curley is a paleo-libertarian, science fiction fan, and all around trouble-maker. He resides in Wyoming, where he gets people to pay him to do things he does for fun anyway, like design and program World Wide Web pages. He is owned by a cat, Wendy.

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