Gregory Benford’s sci-fi-ish novel Artifact takes place in current times. Archaeologists (annoyingly, he spells it without the second “a”) discover a strange artifact in a Mycenaean royal tomb, a stone cube about a yard wide. A prologue tells us it was buried there to stop its killing people.
The action mainly concerns the tussle over the cube between the heroine, American archaeologist Claire, and a Greek archaeologico-military sonofabitch named Kontos. Claire acquires a sidekick, John, who gets beaten up (physically) every time he meets Kontos – I actually lost count. Meanwhile, it takes half the book for John and Claire to get it on. And then we don’t even get a sex scene! We just meet them again next morning. Pretty tepid.
But the real main character is the cube. And what a character! It’s got a singularity inside it. Yup, you read that right, physics geeks. For non-geeks, a “singularity” is where normal laws of physics go kablooey. The Big Bang may have banged out of a singularity; and it’s believed one might be found at the center of a black hole.* How the Mycenaeans found one (or it found them), and trapped it inside a rock cube, is not really explained. But never mind.
Well, the Americans, having heisted the cube to MIT, figure out the physics, sort of. And while everything was copacetic for 3500 years, it seems that tossing the cube about during the custody battles destabilized it. In fact, it turns out, the thing contained twin singularities – one of which somehow escaped back in Greece. And you know how twin singularities are – they just gotta be together. So the one in Greece is on the move, seeking enosis (a little joke for geopolitical junkies – read, “union.”) Why then it had skedaddled from its twin in the cube I could not (amid all the book’s heavy physics jargon) get. But anyhow, when a singularity is hell bent for its twin, you don’t want to be in the way. (Lots of radiation and stuff.)
So, to avert catastrophe, the Americans decide the best bet is to arrange a peaceful get-together of the twins. (I’m not making this up.) This takes them back, with the cube, to Greece, which happens to be in the middle of a war (don’t ask). By now, the U.S. military is in the picture, big time.
I’m probably not revealing too much if I tell you the Americans do save the world (again). But the real question is: does Kontos get capital punishment?
Of course, intellectuals, liberals, writers, Hollywood types, they’re all totally against capital punishment. “An eye for an eye makes the world blind;” you know the drill. And they are sincere, intellectually. Yet something funny happens when they have bad guys in their books or dramas. They want to kill them.
This actually reflects an evolutionary adaptation. Our main adaptation was social cooperation, but it has a bug: the “free rider” problem. Cooperation pays, for a group as a whole, but for an individual it may pay more to cheat, or take without giving (free riding). And if so, free riders will leave more offspring on average, and in time their genes will beat out the cooperation genes. The remedy is to make free riding not pay, by punishing miscreants. That’s why humans evolved with a craving for justice and punishment where deserved,** which all the intellectualizing over the death penalty cannot override. The just punishment for murder is death. And we know this in our genes.
Hence literature, movies and TV are littered with corpses of evildoers. Their creators seem to set them up just to gain the psychic satisfaction of giving them their just deserts.
This was noted in my review of the movie White House Down. It doesn’t cut it for villains to be merely captured, since the state has largely exited the execution business. So capital punishment must be administered ad hoc, like in a shoot-out. But there are rules. Usually you can guess whether a culprit will get the death penalty. In general, a single murder isn’t enough, unless it’s particularly heinous, gruesome or depraved. Killing a child will definitely do it. Any two murders, probably. Three or more: certain death.
So back to Kontos. A nasty piece of work. Wanted to rape Claire, but never got further than a breast grab. And for all the times this bully beat up John, he never actually killed anybody. The reader wants his comeuppance – but the death penalty? However, Kontos did commit one indubitably capital offence: political incorrectness. He was a rabble-rousing, war-mongering anti-democrat. So off with his head!
In the end, his fate was so thoroughly predictable that I’m not giving much away here either. Yup, it was the singularity what got ‘im. Right in the labonza. Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark how that Nazi guy like melted? This was worse. Capital punishment with a capital C.
I’m sure Gregory Benford is a very nice man who, at cocktail parties, will give you all the intellectual arguments against the death penalty. But in the book his genes were showing. That’s what really killed Kontos.
* Where the mass of a star, with all its gravity, is crushed down into a pinpoint.
** All this is modeled in game theory’s “prisoner’s dilemma” problem where, in brief, for a single encounter, betrayal pays, but over repeated iterations, cooperation pays more. And this incidentally answers how we are moral even without religion. Cooperative morality is in our biology.