Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein (Putnam, 2015) 486 pages
Okay, John Sandford is a name I recognize, but I had never come across Ctein before. And is it pronounced “Stein,” but spelled with a Cyrillic “s”? I think so, but my brain keeps seeing it as “K-tine,” which I’m sure is not correct. In any case, they did a good job of hiding the “co-author” seams of this project, and I know that’s not easy.
I also realized that I haven’t done many science fiction books lately. I seem to have had a long run of fascinating AI and modern biology books lately. But I just finished this one and I’m reading another (and what a book that is: but you’ll have to wait a bit), so we’ll address the overall imbalance a bit.
There is a spectrum of science fiction stories that runs from soft sci-fi to hard. In soft science fiction, Harry gets in his rocket and takes off for Saturn and it just gets there because, you know, the whole point is not the hardware, but what happens between Sally and the alien she told Harry meant nothing to her. In hard science fiction, Harry spends 200 pages telling you how the Saturn rocket was designed, built, and functions because, you know, the whole point is not the Harry-Sally-alien three-way, but the hardware.
On this line from hard to soft, Saturn Run is so hard that it could have been carved out of a diamond by an industrial laser (which actually happens to create a vinyl record needle in the book). There is even a ten-page “authors’ note” starting on page 477 that not only gives readers the science behind the spaceship in the book, the USSS Nixon, but tells how computer simulations were used to make the trajectories and timelines for voyages from earth to Saturn realistic and correct. We have come a long way from simple Hohmann transfer orbits that we calculated with slide rules(!) at NYU back during the lunar program.
We know that getting there is half the fun, and in this case two third of the book involves getting to Saturn. This is where (in 2066) a surfer/slacker/war-hero-post-traumatic-stress/rich guy (page 19) has accidentally discovered an alien space outpost among the rings. The Chinese find out and re-purpose an expedition to Mars to get there first, but the Americans invent a new rocket system called VASIMR (explained on page 172 and again on page 481) and strap it to a modified space station to beat the Chinese to Saturn. Now, there seems to be no other reason for the president of the USA (a Hispanic woman in 2066) to try and beat the Chinese to any possible goodies other than “those guys didn’t invite us along.”
Almost every problem the crew faces along the way is the same as any isolated community in the Arctic or out-of-the-way place faces. So we have issues with testing explosions (page 129), sex problems (pages 150, 207, and 219), and possible sabotage (page 189). (As a computer and network guy, I have to tell you that there is a simple solution to the computer issues mentioned on page 190.)
The earth people are a diverse group, but not really deep. Isolation is always an issue, and I liked the diversity of the crew. They are handled as deftly as the crew in the classic Forbidden Planet movie.
So I liked the book a lot, but it did weasel quite a bit on the one thing that anyone who reads about alien first contact cares about: the aliens. There are none! And of course the artificially intelligent machine that greets the visitors speaks better English than the characters do. The machine is conveniently programmed to reveal nothing at all about alien species, which turn out to be quite numerous in this section of the galaxy. (This knowledge, which should be met with stunning amazement, is shrugged off in favor of a “what neat stuff can you give us?” approach to interstellar relations.)
Instead of real aliens, all the travelers encounter is a kind of alien vending machine or arcade game that grants points for Earth trinkets like old music (Motorhead and Bach are apparently favorites in this arm of the galaxy (page 332)). You trade the points for other stuff (will Lemmy get a cut?), but we never see any alien-wares because the Chinese manage to blow up a piece of the vending machine while trying to get it to go “tilt” or whatever and get Earth banned from interstellar trade for 144 years (I am not making this up: its’ on page 368). But it was an interesting approach to the issues.
I was a bit distressed about one aspect of the book, however. And I don’t feel bad about telling you about this aspect of the book, because it’s out there in reviews already and the end is still a surprise, even if you know this. The whole Chinese-American competition reminded me of the old days after WW II when the USA used to go to international trade talks and say “all we want is a fair advantage” over other countries. After all, the USA won World War II and every other industrial country in the world had to rebuild by buying American, so what was the use of complaining? This strategy kept Americans busy and employed in manufacturing for more than twenty years, but no one explained to the USA trade negotiators that the words “fair” and “advantage” meant very different things and did not belong together in the same phrase, like the oxymorons “working vacation” or “jumbo shrimp.” Other countries wasted no time pointing this out.
In this book, however, the irony of the “we come in peace for all mankind” USSS Nixon crew espousing a blatantly jingoistic attitude is lost on the characters.
The problem is this: the Americans have essentially found eight quarters in the coin return slot of the alien vending machine (yes, I know many machines today do not have coin return slots, but look it up). The Americans split in a hurry before the Chinese find out that the Americans have all the quarters.
I’m not too sure why the Americans of 2066 are so unwilling to share with the Chinese. It may be because of Korea and Vietnam, but we always tell countries that we want to forgive and forget and not to hold grudges. I’m also not sure why the Russians and south Asian Indians seem to have vanished as powers by 2066, which is only 50 years in the future.
In any case, the Chinese solution about the eight quarters, once they find out (“The loose change?” says the vending machine. “The Americans said they’d take care of that…”) is rejected. The Chinese plan is to split the two bucks four ways: two quarters for the USA, two for China, and the other four to be parceled out to other countries. For some reason, the characters all scoff at this crazy Chinese sharing thing, and readers, I take it, are expected to smile and go along with this (I assume there are no plans for a Chinese edition).
Much is made about the presence of a covert Chinese political officer on board, although most of the complaining is done by the American NSA/CIA agent aboard the American ship! The Chinese operative is a bloodthirsty and soulless monster, but I suspect readers are expected to cheer when the spy on the Nixon feeding information to the Chinese is killed in an “accident” (wink, wink) by the American “political officer” at the end of the book.
I think this aspect of the book would not bother me as much if there were some concrete reason for not wanting any quarters to end up in Chinese hands. But the only reason seems to be “well, we’re Americans and we want a fair advantage…” And that did not work well for me.