Friday, September 18, 2015

Space Race

Saturn Run
by John Sandford & Ctein
G.P. Putnam's Sons

3.5 out of 5 rings around a planet.

(I received a free copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for this review.)

I’ve read a lot of John Sandford novels so I was a little confused at first when there wasn’t a serial killer on the spaceship.

In the year 2066 telescopes spot what can only be an alien ship near Saturn as it docks with a previously unknown object in orbit. The governments of the United States and China both want to get there first which leads to a rushed program to quickly put together ships capable of making the long journey. Political tension and potential sabotage make the voyage into space even more dangerous as crews from both nations race to Saturn.

Sandford (Real name John Cook.) regularly puts two new crime thrillers on the best seller’s list every year so it seems a little odd that he’d forgo one of them to team up with photo-artist Ctein to do a pure sci-fi novel. However, Sandford’s bio and his books have also highlighted his interest and knowledge of subjects like art, photography, archaeology, surgery, and computer technology so it shouldn’t be that big of a surprise that his mind might turn to this kind of book outside his normal genre. 

There’s an authors’ note at the end in which they explain that the core of the idea was based on needing to get to Saturn in a certain time frame. From the details in that you can tell it was the focus of their thinking on how come up with some realistic near-future spaceship propulsion methods. By working up a couple of different ways to accomplish this they set up a kind of tortoise and the hare race between the Americans and Chinese which also helps set up the drama to the story. (The authors’ note also provides a very satisfactory answer as to why they decided to name the US ship after Richard Nixon.)

It also helps that Sandford has had a lot of practice in setting up characters in familiar genre situations while still making them seem like real people who all work, bitch, commiserate, screw, take drugs, drink, scheme, and joke while risking their lives to head as part of a potentially disastrous contest with a rival nation to try and meet some aliens. 

There are a few things here that make clear that Sandford’s not working on his usual turf. One of his strengths is writing scenes in which people have to act fast when things start going wrong, and generally his pacing is nearly flawless when it comes to building tension. However, the nature of this story requires a timeline in which months of boring traveling is involved, and while they do their best to use this downtime to set up story, build characters, develop the setting, and add humor, it just doesn’t have the sense of frantic momentum that Sandford can usually deliver except for a few scenes. 

Plus, this is the only book of Sandford’s I’ve read which doesn’t focus on one single lead. While Sandy Darlington seems like he’s going to be the main character at first this actually turns into much more of an ensemble book, and that added to a sense that the story is drifting at times. I also question how much time and effort was spent describing the various cameras and the best way of using them, but that’s what happens when one of your authors is a photographer.

There’s also a slight letdown related to what they discover when they get to the alien object. It’s not a complete fumble, but it does show that Sandford and Ctein put more thought into how they’d get to Saturn rather than what the characters would find when they got there.

It’s still an entertaining read with some exciting fast paced parts, but those not interested in problems like how you vent excess heat from a spaceship engine might find it a bit dull at times.

Also posted at Goodreads.

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