John Sandford and Ctein tell an enjoyable story of interplanetary travel in their 2015 novel ‘Saturn Run’

December 18, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 18, 2018

Saturn Run, a 2015 science fiction novel by prolific thriller writer John Sandford and mononymic polymath Ctein, is a diverting tale about two spacecraft racing to uncover the secrets of a mysterious alien artifact hidden in the far reaches of our solar system.

Sandford, a Pulitzer Prize–winning former journalist who’s probably best known for his 29-book “Prey” series, joined forces with Caltech-trained photographer/physicist/computer scientist Ctein for this tale, which I believe represents Sandford’s first venture into space. None of the characters evince much complexity, but the scenario is gripping enough to make Saturn Run a fun read for science-fiction enthusiasts.

The story opens shortly before an astronomer accidentally detects signs of an alien craft approaching Saturn in early 2066, an event that triggers a frantic U.S. government effort to retrofit a space station for interplanetary travel and research. This project is initially disguised as an effort to accompany and support China’s Martian Odyssey, a ship intended to establish humanity’s first colony on the red planet, but the subterfuge evaporates a few weeks later when every astronomer on Earth notices the alien vessel exiting the solar system.

At its core, Saturn Run is an updated gloss of the Arthur C. Clarke novels 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two and their film adaptations, although Sandford and Ctein forgo 2001’s prehistoric prologue as well as the major computer-gone-amok subplot. Instead, American Captain Naomi Fang-Castro, taciturn security chief Crow, wealthy videographer-astronomer Sandy Darlington and dozens of others crewing the rechristened U.S. Spaceship Richard M. Nixon vie with a variety of other issues.

Saturn Run (2015 novel), G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

The Americans are desperate to beat China’s (also rechristened) Celestial Odyssey for fear of missing out on potentially Earth-changing alien technology. Fang-Castro and colleagues spend much of the first half or so of the book contending with orbital mechanics and a complex heat-disposal system that protects the ship’s ion engines from baking its crew and passengers.

This passage, about a third of the way into the book, describes the start of Nixon’s slow but steady journey out of Earth orbit:

The Chinese launch had been high drama. This was the exact opposite, a non-event. There was nothing. No vibration; no new sound, no feeling of acceleration or indication of motion. The status display showed no change in speed or altitude.

Somebody asked, “Is there a problem?”

Somebody else pointed at the broadcast feed on the main monitor. They were on the nightside, and the steady bright glow from the engines proved that they were firing.

Fiorella smiled into the camera: “Yes, the Nixon’s doing just what it was supposed to do, which is to begin its spiral out of low Earth orbit. At twenty-five percent power, though, and fully laden, its acceleration in open space is undetectable to human senses — a thousandth of a gee. In the zero-gee environment of the axle modules, free-floating objects will have started drifting, but none of the crew has felt anything different at all. In the zero-point-one gee artificial gravity of the [ship’s] Commons, there isn’t even a perceptible tilt to the floor.”

The reality of the departure was even more peculiar than that. The engines that were trying to push the ship forward were actually causing it to slow down. Before the Nixon could go to Saturn, it had to claw its way out of Earth’s gravitational well, and that took prodigious amounts of energy. The energy that was pouring out of the VASIMR engines as thrust all went into raising the ship’s altitude ever so gradually. With the passage of each minute the Nixon climbed by about one kilometer under the push of four plasma exhaust streams.

Naturally, Saturn Run’s plot accelerates as the voyagers approach their goal. The latter parts of the novel show the Americans struggling to comprehend alien machines and to avoid a confrontation with the much-better-armed Chinese. Ultimately, however, the two ships find — for better or worse — that their fates are irrevocably entwined.

Along the way, Sandford and Ctein show how the astronauts deal with boredom. There are a few liaisons; the crew also forms at least one orgy club (which the captain squelches when it begins to adversely affect morale), a bunch of ad hoc musical groups, and the “hump pool,” an illicit betting ring that revolves around picking the precise day Darlington and Cassandra Fiorella, the ship’s science correspondent, will — well, you know.

The prose makes for easy reading, by and large, even when the crew wrestle with material science and interplanetary trajectories. I have no idea whether the authors plan a sequel, but if so, I’d be willing to try it. And I may even pick up the disaster story that Ctein cowrote with David Gerrold, the science-fiction writer most famous for penning the Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

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