The discovery of the alien ship was an accident that rivaled Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin; potentially orders of magnitude more important. The orbital telescope’s set of test photographs of Saturn should have been pretty boring, but that was before someone noticed the signs of a gigantic interstellar ship decelerating to match orbits with a moonlet in that planet’s rings. Earth’s two major powers – the USA and China – immediately ramped up their space programs in the rush to be first to meet the visitors. Even though the alien ship turned around and left without even bothering to visit Earth, the two continued their race to get their hands on the “alien tech” that the visitors surely must have left.
China repurposed a colony ship that had been intended for Mars to make their trip, ahile the Americans – no interplanetary ships abuilding at the moment – decided to repurpose their space station, give it some gigantic engines, and take the erstwhile satellite for a round trip billion of miles long. The assumption was that whoever arrived first would take control of technology at least a century ahead of the current state.
The race was on: in retrospect, the two participants might well have been participating in the cross-country outlaw competition depicted in “Cannonball Run,” except this time the race was a Saturn Run.
Crime writer John Sandford, who’s previously penned twenty-seven [Adjective] Prey novels and another eight featurning surfer boy/cop Virgil Flowers, teams with photographer and scifi aficionado Ctein for Saturn Run. Sandford readers expecting a futuristic version of Lucas Davenport will be disappointed, however, as will any SciFi fans who buy the novel expecting a typical “first contact” story. The first is because it’s not a detective novel and the latter’s because any hopes of alien contact are dashed by the departure of the 10-kilometer ship long before the Earthlings even get out of the starting block. Consequently, the novel becomes more realistic than standard SciFi fare, though unfortunately less thrilling. Instead, it’s a run-of-the-mill novel about espionage, betrayal, and human conflict overlain with a sheen of slightly speculative technology.
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Saturn Run bears more than a small resemblance to Neal Stephenson’s Seven Eves, a space opera published earlier this year. Both novels are marked by involved discussions of orbital mechanics and both avoid the made-up technobabble known as “rubber science,” so familiar to viewers of “Star Trek” engineers who are forever reconfiguring some device to emit a tachyon or graviton beam. It seems that recent complains about scientific inaccuracies in small- and large-screen science fiction is making authors sensitive to science accuracy. Another similarity between the books is that both authors convert an existing space station into an impromptu space ship. Now that’s a little eerie…
It may be because the authors labored to remain scientifically accurate, but Saturn Run ended up reading rather like the classic description of the job of an airline pilot: “Hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.” Sandford and Ctein endeavor to make the seven-month journey to Saturn interesting through the inclusion of a shipboard pool to guess when two characters finally make the beast with two backs; a little rote interpersonal conflict; and the obligatory dirty tricks by the wily Oriental enemies. Not until the final reel does the action pick up speed, and even then things move at a pace more glacial than frenzied.
According to reviews at the River, Sandford fans who’d expected a spacegoing version of one of his hero cops have been disappointed (so much for open-mindedness). There’s no cop-style detecting at all: the heroes don’t even embark on a search for the Chinese mole they know is on the Richard M. Nixon. Who knows about Ctein fans… Who knows who “Ctein” even is! the Gandalf-like image in the author bio doesn’t reveal anything, and there isn’t a Wikipedia entry for a guy who probably swapped the S in Stein for a C. Whatever.
If the action didn’t occur in space, leaving no chance to call in backup and no hope of a deus ex machina to save the hero’s bacon in the thrilling climax, this could well be any novel taking place anywhere. Thankfully, Saturn Run turns out to be fairly good – mind you, it isn’t great: it’s just fairly good.