Saturn Run (a book review)

Saturn Run
In space, no one can hear you take two years to make a spaceship…

Put away your wormholes and your space-time continuum. Don’t listen for the sounds of laser fire in space. You won’t need such things when reading Saturn Run, by John Sandford and Ctein. Don’t worry, you’ll still need an active imagination. Otherwise, what’s science fiction for?

The year is 2066 and a bottom-rung employee at Caltech (read: intern) has discovered an anomaly approaching Saturn. What makes it an anomaly? It’s decelerating. So, someone, or something is visiting Saturn. But who? And Why?

We have enough trouble keeping secrets today, so the United States, ever the keeper of secrets (we know you have the Ark of the Covenant!), can’t keep it from the rest of the world. Soon, the race is on between the economic powers of China and the United States to get to Saturn first and find out what’s there. What’s wrong with a little space race? If there are aliens, or alien technology, the likelihood of the first country to reach it getting a serious advantage on the rest of mankind is high. So the stakes are high as well, and so is the tension.

Saturn Run, if you haven’t guessed, leans more towards hard science fiction. 2066 isn’t that far ahead, in the grand scheme. Neither country can just hop on a spaceship and cruise the solar system. But each player has a different idea on how to do it. The Chinese are going full-on nuclear power. The United States has other ideas.

The focus here is primarily on the American side and the development of a new technology to power a ship made from a retrofitted space station. This where stuff gets real. I had to put on my dunce cap because I didn’t understand all of it. But fear not, fair reader, Sandford and Ctein somehow make the math and science entertaining instead of boring by making the reader party to the problem solving. Instead of just throwing equations and theories at you, they get you into the heads of the characters as they work to solve the problems. Once they do (or think they do), you get to watch as they test out their ingenious solutions in space.

Testing space fuel! That sounds awesome!

It is. Seriously. I know I’m an old-fashioned nerd, but you’ll have to trust me. It’s my understanding that the technology involved is actually being studied now and could very well be used in the future.

Don’t forget, this story isn’t all about the science of alternative propulsion. There is, of course, the journey across the solar system, and the discoveries that wait at the end. Those discoveries are not hard science fiction, but they are not wildly crazy either. And the gamesmanship between the competing countries over those discoveries is quite entertaining. …Depending on what side you prefer to support. There’s nothing anti-China here, but there is a distinctly American perspective.

Sandford and Ctein also tackle the realistic issues that would follow a diverse crew of men and women packed together in close quarters in the depths of space for months on end. There isn’t any cryo-freeze, or whatever. They have to figure out how to deal with each other.

To that end, I think the characters went a long way towards making this story work. From the captain of the ship, who has to make the difficult decisions for her crew and career, to the Caltech intern how isn’t all that he seems to be, to the scientists who make the whole show work, everyone feels unique. And their unique choices help shape the story in varying ways. I only wish they could have explored a few of them a little deeper. The highest personal stakes are for the captain, making her a more intriguing read. But the focus isn’t really on her. Perhaps, in their effort to explore this scenario in all it’s aspects, they have included a few too many perspectives. That’s okay, though. Saturn Run is what science fiction is all about.

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