Sunday, May 28, 2017

Saturn Run

Saturn Run
by John Sandford and Ctein
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is a pretty awesome piece of science-fiction writing, considering that its authors are, respectively, a murder mystery maven and an art photographer. Unsurprisingly, given its pedigree, the book does include a handful of murders, and it also realistically explores some of the challenges of filming a video documentary of a manned mission to Saturn, somewhere around the year 2066.

John Sandford, the author of 27 "Lucas Davenport" mystery-thrillers and going-on-10 "Virgil Flowers" ditto, among other novels, teamed up with a high-end photographer and expert photo printer named Ctein to write this book. While neither of them writes under his birth name (Sandford is actually a Pulitzer-winning journalist named John Camp; I've given up trying to find out Ctein's secret identity), the science in their joint science-fiction outing is mostly genuine. According to their afterword to this book, they did a lot of heavy research, computer modeling, and spreadsheet-crunching to make sure most of it, with the perhaps trivial exception of the antimatter stuff, would theoretically work - including the choreography of ships accelerating and decelerating in deep space.

One of the things these authors seem to have picked up from their research is an appreciation of acceleration. The pace of this book, or at least its apparent pace as translated into the reader's emotions, describes a smooth curve, from deceptively frustrating delays at the outset to an almost uncontrollable velocity at its destination. Besides all the things that can go terribly wrong during a quickly-thrown-together manned mission to Saturn, when science and technology can be expected to have progressed only incrementally beyond where it is today, there is the human tension of people stuck together on a ship - or rather, two ships, from rival world powers China and the U.S.

While they race to be the first to get to what seems to be an alien space station hidden within the giant planet's ring system, the souls on board both ships, and perhaps the entire planet, live every moment under the threat of a fatal disaster. The aliens could be hostile. The Chinese could have an agent on board. An engine malfunction - or is it sabotage? - could take valuable lives. A collision with a space rock as small as a grain of sand could be catastrophic. A tiny miscalculation - or maybe a computer virus - could send one of the ships on a one-way journey across interstellar space. Which ship gets there first could affect the technological balance of power for years to come... but coming in too hot could mean being unable to enter orbit, and spending valuable time overshooting Saturn and doubling back. And when one of the ships is too badly damaged to make it back to earth, the question whether the other ship will rescue its crew sets up a level of international crisis that one character describes as Defcon Two, going on Defcon One.

The world of 2066 described in this book is believable, because it is patterned on the way things have been developing in the world of 2015 (its year of publication). There are references to historical events in the recent past, as of 50 years in the future, that are too familiar to the people living in that time to describe in detail, but are hinted at in a way that makes them sound plausible and even familiar - a terrorist act called the "Houston Flash," which seems to have topped 9/11; a conflict called the Tri-Border War, which left this book's protagonist psychologically scarred.

Most people don't realize Sanders "Sandy" Darlington has that much going on under the hood - neither in terms of psychic darkness, nor his abilities as a soldier. They just consider him an over-educated rich kid with no real ambition or drive; a pretty face with no brains behind it, a tendency to show up late and under-dressed for work while knowing he can't be fired, and other unfortunate tendencies, such as womanizing and disrespecting authority. Yet he somehow manages to be the guy who discovers the alien space station, and he somehow gets chosen to join the crew of the U.S. Saturn mission - a ship rapidly converted from a space station, dubbed the U.S.S. Richard M. Nixon (snerk). His job, for public consumption, is to shoot the video documenting this historic space race with the Chinese. But secretly, he's one of the handful of guys on board with a gun, and the brains to do what his country needs.

It wouldn't be an interesting mission if it all went smoothly for him. Things do go wrong, almost from the start, and Sandy in particular takes a beating, emotionally and physically. Then, after a year marked by suspicion, betrayal, secret agendas, and ruthless competition between two superpowers for control of alien technology that can change the world, the slow steady burn of tension and intrigue erupts into violence. Then, more than ever, what Sandy and his shipmates do becomes a matter of life and death. If things go really wrong, it could make the whole trip and all its trouble totally meaningless.

The book has all that, plus some sexy romance, a good helping of laughs, sharp dialogue, chilling surprises, and situations that open avenues for sober thought about the way the world works - now, if not 50 years from now.

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