Friday, October 14, 2016

Book Review: Saturn Run by John Sanford and Ctein

A Bit of a Slower Starter, But with a Strong Finish

Set in 2066, Saturn Run is the story of the race between the United States and China to reach an alien space station and obtain the advanced technology that is expected to be there.
In general, the book starts a bit slow.  Much of the first part involves the description of the various people on the mission and in the government on the ground.  It provides the fodder for the rest of the story, in somewhat of a systematic and plodding way, and unfortunately, with some unnecessary repetition. After the introductions and when the alien spacecraft is sighted, the government team transitions quite quickly from the threat to humanity that the alien technology poses to the threat to dominance that getting to Saturn second poses.  At that point, I asked myself, would we really dash off to an alien space base without considering self-defense more fully?  I was surprised that the government did not want to know more about the aliens and their capabilities before they went on what might become essentially an interplanetary burglary mission.  But that race forms the basis for the story.
The authors’ synopsis loosely compares this book to The Martian.  I can see that.  Both are based in space and require solutions to nearly impossible engineering problems for the characters to survive.  The big difference to me was that the issues in The Martian are related to ones that everyone can identify with – having air, growing food, making water…  I have a much harder time relating to the problem of dissipating 600-degree Celsius heat, which was the central concern in Saturn Race; however, the solution seems reasonable and ingenuous, although the means to encapsulate the molten metal so it does not form drops (rather than sheets) seems a bit of smoke and mirrors.
But other than the solution to this central engineering problem, the technology of 2066 seemed to have changed little.  The viewing technology – vids and screens – seems almost unchanged from today.  We seem to have no Artificial Intelligences onboard or working issues groundside as far as I can tell.  Implants seem to be something like cochlear implants – they seem to be hearing pings and communications.  And so on.  I guess I expected to see more tech of the future based on current trends and less of what we have today.
While there was some suspense and tension in the first part of the book, it ramped up quite a bit for me in the last half, and I particularly liked the series of twists at the end.  Every time I thought the crew had covered every eventuality, something unexpected happened.  Additionally, the book hit one of my sweet spots – specifically, avoiding the use of totally made-up, non-science that is required to save the day in many science fiction stories.  Don’t get me wrong – total fabrications can be fun and entertaining.  And something beyond current state-of-the-art is needed in any story.  But for me, to move beyond fun and into being a really absorbing read, you can’t pull the world away from the brink of destruction solely on the weight of a completely unbelievable capability.  It’s too cheap, too easy.  The authors avoided that pitfall.
Overall, early on, I was not sure I was going to get into this book.  But some of the tech caught my interest, and then, the way the tension and suspense built, I ended up liking it a lot.  I believe other fans of science thrillers will as well.