Arguably, spending a lot of time on Facebook can often payoff if one pays attention to posts, especially if those posts are by people who are in the know. So one afternoon, I notice that David Gerrold, who often posts about various topics, makes a statement about some new SciFi books that he felt were well worth reading. Since I like Mr. Gerrold’s writing, and since he liked the books that he was talking about, I might like them too.
Saturn Run is the story of a mission to Saturn that is prompted by the accidental discovery of a starship entering our solar system and docking with a somewhat larger object in the ring system of that planet. While the Chinese are already building a ship that is slated to go to Mars, upon the discovery of the object near Saturn, they immediately begin to retool their ship for a trip to the ringed planet. The United States has no ship preparing for a Mars run, but it does have several space stations in orbit around Earth, so the U.S. determines to retool one of the space stations for a Saturn run, but the challenge is to arrive at the object before the Chinese and the race is on.
Along with the challenges of reaching Saturn first, there are also many other challenges such as engine breakdowns that appear to be a result of sabotage, as well as challenges involving crew and passengers on the long trip there and hopefully, back again. The crew of the American ship, the Richard M. Nixon, consists of a seasoned commander and first officer, numerous scientists and engineers, and a very light military presence.
Even though the Chinese ship leaves earth orbit earlier, the Nixon takes a more perilous route going very near the Sun, and arrives first. What they find is nothing less than knowledge that can advance science immeasurably for the people of the Earth. But as usually happens when governments are involved, there is a struggle over who will actually benefit the most from the discoveries.
Saturn Run is a hard science fiction thriller that keeps a reader guessing. I didn’t find anything predictable until the very end of the story when I knew that the supposedly lost information gathered from the object in orbit around Saturn would be preserved by at least one very resourceful individual. Other than that, there were twists and turns galore; on numerous occasions, just when I though the action was going to get pretty intense, there was a more sensible and realistic solution found to whatever the problem was. There is also an element of mystery about the novel as there is an obvious mole on board the Nixon, but we really never find out who it is. While this was something I wondered about, it in no way got in the way of a very well written and entertaining story.
The characters in the story are interesting and the reader gets enough background on at least the main characters to understand who they are. The story starts out by focusing on Sandy, an apparently ne'er do well throwback to the 1960’s hippy culture, but is absolutely not what he originally appears to be. He is actually a very talented videographer and a former military officer who suffers from a form of PTSD that is controlled by medication. Another character is Crow, an aide as well as the eyes and ears of the President of the U.S. Crow has many talents and people skills, but is not above resorting to other darker tactics when the need arises. Speaking of the President, she is portrayed as an intelligent, strong willed woman who is capable of some degree of wrath when she believes that her wishes are not being carried out. The captain of the Nixon is also a woman who has a strong will that often clashes with the wishes of her superiors, but as a career officer, she is honor bound to follow orders. Her counterpart on the Chinese vessel is a man who is loyal to his government, but only to a point. He is an honorable man who loses his life when those under his command fear that he might jeopardize the goals of his superiors because of his honor.
The authors do a great job to give one the feeling of what it might be like to travel for long distances in space with conventional means of propulsion. In this story, there is no faster than light travel and the Nixon has to go to lengths to ramp up their speed to break out of the gravity well of the Earth and then begin to decelerate into the gravity well of Saturn. While this operation does not go well in the story (the Nixon was slated to arrive several weeks before the Chinese, but managed only to arrive days before) the American crew do manage to use the planet’s gravity to get where they needed to be, albeit a little later than anticipated. While on the journey, crew manage to entertain themselves in various ways, including some that are less than ideal causing some bad feelings among members, especially those that are not knowledgeable of military discipline aboard a ship. Some members of the crew are constantly busy though, especially Sandy and a reporter who are charged with documenting every aspect of the mission for both the general public as well as the government.
As those of us who have followed the space program for any number of years, space travel is not routine or easy. The authors illustrate this in their story with the loss of life on a few occasions due to accidents and even through conflict between the powers that are vying to obtain any information that will help advance their causes. One death in particular is very sad and addressed in the epilogue of the story.
As mentioned earlier, the science in this story is very evident in the descriptions of what is needed to get from one place to another in the solar system. The engines that the Nixon use are retrofitted onto a vehicle that is not designed for that particular system and it is up to a brilliant engineer to design a system to keep the engines from overheating. That engineer’s solution is a fascinating system that runs a ribbon of molten metal outside the ship to dissipate heat into open space and is recycled back into the engine to pick up more heat. The last several pages of the book are a more extensive explanation of the science involved to make the story realistic, and yes it is rocket science.
|John Sandford and Ctein|
Well, there it is…