Saturn Run: the science of future space flight

SaturnRunLargeJust about every enjoyable aspect of 1970s science fiction is dragged out of the cliché cupboard, given a 21st century splash of dazzle and delivered here with dash and panache. It seems to be a carefully calculated mash-up of the first contact novels of Niven and Pournelle, the convoluted space opera of EE Doc Smith, and CJ Cherryh’s calc-heavy interstellar series. There’s stacks of solid science, credibly extended into the realm of speculation without breaking (or even mildly infuriating) the laws of physics, and deftly rendered easily digestible by John Sandford’s superlative story-telling skills.

The fascinating science stuff (which is all about the same-old problem; how do you get anywhere in our solar system in a hurry, given that to produce more thrust you need more mass and more mass demands more thrust: repeat) is attached to a pretty geopolitical problem, and the thrill of maybe meeting aliens for the first time. The authors assemble a credible cast of characters, from the US president down to an arthritic cat, and then ramp up the tension by turning the perilous trip to Saturn into a flat-out race between the American and the Chinese nations.

And here’s the real mystery of Saturn Run. All this has been done before, even down to using ion cannons for propulsion. Object spotted by goofball, unnaturally decelerating and changing direction? Check. Assembling a go-to team of top-flight techs and a cranky anthropologist? Check. Great visualisations and descriptions of zero-gee, maintenance pods and spindly spacecraft? Check. Been here; read all this three decades ago.

There are some nifty twists in the narrative and Sandford’s excellent dialogue makes the tense exchanges between staffers, spacemen, engineers, journos, spooks and politicians both rippingly entertaining and entirely believable. His characters behave, pretty much, like real people – even the super-smart science guys and the glossy, ambitious embedded reporters. Yet none of this is new (except maybe the cooling system, although I’ve gotta say that extruded sodium tickled a distant memory from pulp sci-fi stories of the childhood…).

So – excellent entertainment aside – I do wonder why Sandford suddenly veered into this genre. Maybe he’s just plain frustrated and irritated by lazy, science-light sci-philosophy movies, where the emotional narrative overwhelms any chance of intelligent interaction, and where a clever plot twist demands you believe three impossible things before breakfast. Star Wars/Trek are part of my personal narrative, but boy they have a lot to answer for.

Puzzlement aside, I also struggled slightly with how far ahead the novel is set (2066) yet how little progress had been made. Folks are still using ‘slates’ and have ‘wrist wraps’ to alert them; tech which is doable right now. Nip back to 1966 and show someone google on your iPad and they’ll struggle to even find a frame of reference to define what they’re seeing. It’s hard to credit that in another half century, tech development will have slowed so much – even allowing for a couple of major future history events which the authors cannily hint at, but never quite explain.

On any level, Saturn Run is a romp. It’s smart, well informed, and constructed to make the pages fly by. Every stage brings an intriguing revelation, and it certainly succeeds in making a slow-motion race (where neither party knows if the other has a lethal trick up a sleeve) utterly gripping. It may not do anything new, but it does everything extremely well.

8/10

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

Saturn Run is available as a hardback (if you have money to burn) or an ebook (if you have marginally less money to burn)

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