As I think I’ve mentioned before, the miracle that is the Overdrive app and library audiobooks has let me be highly indiscriminate in terms of what I’m listening to at work. All caution essentially goes out the window, and unless I’ve got something on my waitlist available, I’ve made a habit of just picking up any book that looks mildly interesting. So when I was leafing through page after page of time traveling werewolf romances inexplicably available as audiobooks, frantically trying to find something before I left to do my delivery run, I pounced on a book by a guy I’d never heard of and another guy I’d never heard of (who, judging by his name and picture, is actually a wizard). It had all the necessary qualifications, in that it wasn’t a romance, didn’t have time traveling werewolves, and was available without a wait.
So as it turns out, this John Sandford guy is actually kind of a known figure in the vein of James Patterson, and I’d just never heard of him. Or maybe Patterson is in the vein of Sandford; I’m not opposed to crime thrillers, but they’re not normally my preferred reading. Ctein, on the other hand, appears to be less well known, more enigmatic, and likely still a wizard masquerading as a photographer. In either case, neither one is an author I’d expect to put forth something in the vein of Andy Weir’s The Martian, but that’s pretty much what Saturn Run is: a surprisingly enjoyable near future scifi story.
Like The Martian, Saturn Run is also a race against time sort of story. Saturn Run isn’t a rescue, though; in the mid 2060s, an intern in CalTech’s astronomy department notices something odd in Saturn’s ring system: something has decelerated and entered orbit of Saturn. Natural objects, of course, don’t decelerate, and given that it came in on a trajectory from outside the solar system, it becomes clear very quickly that the object is an alien spacecraft of some sort.
The situation back at Earth is very 1980s Cold War scifi, but with China as semi-antagonist instead of Russia. The US has several space stations up, but no real interplanetary craft; the Chinese, who haven’t, as yet, noticed the alien spacecraft, are in the middle of prepping for an expedition to Mars. Intelligence estimates predict that the US has, at most, seven months to get an expedition on the way out to Saturn before the Chinese either notice or find out through their own intelligence channels. Plans are made to adapt a space station into an interplanetary craft, and the race Saturn is on.
Surprisingly for a guy who doesn’t normally write scifi, Saturn Run is at least on the hard-ish end of the spectrum. Sandford and Ctein did their research into orbital mechanics, VASIMR engines, and nuclear energy. This isn’t the kind of book where they just slap extra engines on a space shuttle or something; the conversion of space station into the USS Nixon (So named because of the cover story of assisting Chinese efforts on Mars) is at least believable enough to pass muster when I read it. I’m hardly a rocket aerospace engineer, but half a brain, a lifetime reading scifi and a willingness to at least poke about the science of space travel has given me an okay grasp on what is and isn’t in the realm of the believable– even when something as exotic as the Nixon’s unique take on heat sinks comes into play.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Saturn Run at first. The initial few chapters were underwhelming. The station’s captain is a token lesbian; the CalTech intern the kind of incompetent that makes you roll your eyes and question how people this dumb would get that job. The captain is just sort of “there” through out the book, with her sexual preferences never amounting to much of anything meaningful; but the intern, at least, turns into a surprisingly interesting and well developed character with a decent reason to be in that job. Most of the characters in the book probably fall into those two categories, actually: they’re either just there, or they’re surprisingly entertaining. Thankfully, I think the preponderance is in the surprisingly entertaining category.
Most books about first contact are going to live or die based on the merits of the aliens you meet. The aliens of Saturn Run are satisfactory, if only briefly active in the narrative. The real story is about the Nixon and its Chinese competition, and while the first contact situation works, it’s not super memorable.
Is Saturn Run the most original novel ever? No, probably not. But it’s a solid effort and its highs well outweigh its lows. It’s an engaging and enjoyable read from an unexpected source.