BOOK REVIEW: SATURN RUN by John Sandford and Ctein

Figure 1 - Saturn (Courtesy NASA)
Figure 1 – Saturn (Courtesy NASA)

I’ve been reading John Sandford’s mysteries for many years and, in fact, corresponded with him briefly nearly a decade ago. And as well as knowing him from fandom, I’ve been aware of Ctein’s high status in the world of photography and photo printing. Well, you could’ve knocked me down with the proverbial feather when I saw the book cover in Figure 2. John Sandford (real name John Camp) is a well-known writer (in fact, a multiple New York Times best-seller), but not for his SF/F. Several of the books in his “Prey” series—now up to 25 books—have been made into movies; his Kidd series about a “computer genius” probably wouldn’t even be there except for his son’s help with techie stuff. His protagonists in the Prey series, Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, work for the Minnesota BCA, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. So an SF book written by John Sandford kinda blew my mind… until I saw the name Ctein nicely hidden in smaller type under Sandford’s name on the cover. I met Ctein briefly about 40 years ago at some West Coast convention, or maybe a Worldcon; my friend Mike Finkbiner bought a painting of his which, unfortunately, I don’t have a very good photo of for you to see. And in the intervening years Ctein has become a Big Name in photography circles for his expertise—especially in the “forgotten art” of dye transfer printing—and has written a couple of books (one of which, Digital Restoration From Start To Finish, is invaluable to photo restorers—even amateur ones) and hundreds of articles on photography. I’ve been familiar with this book for some time—I do digital restorations myself; I like taking something old and beat-up and making it look new. As Ctein says, “Bringing a photograph back to life is as satisfying as printing a brand new photograph.” (“Aha,” thought I, “That’s it—Ctein provided the technical know-how and Sandford wrote the book.)

Figure 2 - Saturn Run Cover
Figure 2 – Saturn Run Cover

Nah. There is a danger in quick, unverified assumptions. You see, although Ctein has written an awful lot, he’s never written fiction, and Sandford—they met through an online photography forum—has never written SF; but by the time they were done with the book, it would (in Ctein’s own words—see Ctein’s guest editorial on John Scalzi’s blog for more information) “take a forensic librarian to figure out who wrote what.” So it was my bad for jumping to conclusions. Ctein has double degrees—English and Physics—from Caltech (that’s the California Institute of Technology; the West Coast’s equivalent of MIT), so he and Sandford could not only write, they could edit each other’s work. Figure 3 shows a picture of Ctein; Figure 4 shows John Sandford, if you’re interested.

Figure 3 - Ctein
Figure 3 – Ctein

So what’s the book about? If you’re like me, you eat up books that mix “hard science”—like, f’r example, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle—with action/thriller sort of stuff. And that pretty much describes Saturn Run. As you know, I’m not a big fan of spoilers, so I won’t be able to go into much detail here—and if I did, I’m sure Ctein would drive or fly up from California just to bop me on the head for it!—but I can give you not only a general outline of what you’ll be reading when you buy this book. (And I’m sure you’ll want to buy it; it kept me interested, even on the edge of my seat a few times!) Capsule? It’s a thriller about a possible alien first contact and humanity’s first-ever manned mission to the planet Saturn.

Figure 4 – John Sandford
Figure 4 – John Sandford

Set fifty years from now in 2056, the story begins when a space handyman is sent to find out why a camera on the SSO—the Sky Survey Observatory, Earth’s biggest and best unmanned space observatory—is jiggling, and sending unusable data back to Earth. Once fixed, the camera feeds deep space photographic data for routine observation back to Caltech, where a bored low-level intern named Sanders “Sandy” Darlington is filling time until his inheritance kicks in at age thirty, two years from now; at that time, Darlington will be free to fill his life with sex, drugs, rock’n’roll or anything his little heart desires. Until then, he’s been given make-work at the astrophysics department. He can’t be fired, because his parents’ money has paid for a new building at Caltech, but he’s a hippy-dippy surfer dude, who has a degree in American Arts (the “humanities” equivalent of basket-weaving) from Harvard. His job this day is to calibrate the newly-replaced camera by comparing before-and-after shots in all available spectra, of an area of space; this is work a computer could do just as well, but they have to keep Sandy busy. Nothing is expected to happen, unless a nova or gamma-ray burst unexpectedly pops up—but twelve seconds into Sandy’s boring workday, the computer pops up a message: CRITICAL ANOMALY.

Now, Earth fifty years from now is not a very exciting futuristic world; it’s a lot like today, only with self-driving cars and a very autocratic female President. And the U.S. and China are the Major Players in space (In fact, the US maintains a large manned orbital space station, and China is preparing for a manned mission to Mars). Instead of phones and PDAs, people wear “wrist wraps” or (in the case of government employees, have implants), and one of the big TV stars is “Naked Nancy.” Just a small extrapolation from what’s going on now, and deliberately so. (From the John Scalzi interview linked to above: “Actually, not much has changed structurally. China is still an authoritarian state, but with much input from its populace. The United States is somewhat more authoritarian, but not notably so. The biggest difference is that gender equality is then so taken for granted that it’s barely worth mentioning.

“The differences are subtle. Politically, physically, socially… Keep the world in the story familiar, so we can tell readers an unfamiliar story. America and China still mostly run the planet and still have a substantially uneasy relationship. Will that really happen? I hope not. On climate change, which is hardly ignorable, we kind of optimistically hoped that the worst of it will be avoided and addressed, again so that we didn’t have to deal with a radically different future.”)

So what kind of CRITICAL ANOMALY did Sandy find? Well, something’s moving into the Solar System, and it’s decelerating! I don’t need to tell you guys that natural objects entering our system don’t accelerate—unless they’re caught in a gravity well—and they certainly don’t decelerate! This will have major implications for the entire world, and the US has caught it first! The object appears to be heading for a moon within one of the gaps in Saturn’s rings. Plans are made to convert our space station into a spaceship to visit Saturn and maybe grab some future tech. And as soon as the news gets out—after all, the government doesn’t own or control all astronomers; there are many thousands of amateur ones as well, so the news was bound to get out—a brand-new “space race” starts, where the Chinese and the US are vying to be the first to visit the putative aliens. And that’s about all I can tell you about what happens… I don’t want some angry photographer/artist rushing up here to bop me on the head. (Of course, I’m kidding. I don’t think he’s the violent type. But he might eviscerate me verbally.)

I want to say here that I enjoyed this book immensely—it’s real science fiction; John Sandford has been wanting for some time to do an SF book, and I’m glad that he collaborated with Ctein to do so. The collaboration is seamless (see quote from Ctein above), and even a long-time Sandford reader such as I will not be able to tell where one author begins or leaves off and the other begins. There is—and I’ve verified this with Ctein—much present-day science in the book, with only a bit of extrapolation, scientifically speaking. (Ctein talks about a phrase I hadn’t heard before—borrowed from Greg Benford—scientific extrapolation of the Star Trek kind is called “wantum mechanics.” See what happens when you get real scientists writing science fiction?)

Of course, when I excitedly told Ctein I thought this book could be a Hugo or Nebula contender, he disagreed with me. “It’s a Good Read,” he said, “it doesn’t have pretensions to being more.” Well, opinions differ on what’s a contender—some Hugo winners haven’t been really Good Reads in this reviewer’s sometimes-less-than-humble opinion. What I do know about this novel and awards is that, because it’s both authors’ first-ever SF book, both of them are eligible for the John W. Campbell award for first SF/F novel! (Any nominators out there, take note.) That’s funny, given the number of books John Sandford has published. (Although I started, years ago, by reading the Prey books with Lucas Davenport, in recent years that character has been overtaken by someone who was originally a minor character in the Davenport books—one Virgil Flowers, an investigator for the BCA, who is usually referred to by other characters as “that f*in’ Flowers.” He’s less rule-bound than Davenport, and more fun in some ways.)

The people in this book, like Sandy Darlington (who’s deeper than he seems at first), John Clovers (an anthropologist), Naomi Fang-Castro (Commander of the SSS3—the US Space Station), Rebecca Johansson (the power engineer), Crow (the security guy) and even most—if not all—of the secondary characters, the red shirts (Star Trek lingo; I’m talking about the people who strut their brief moments on the stage; some die, some don’t), and other minor characters all come to life in this book. I’m not saying it’s a perfect book, but it’s a darned Good Read. And that’s what counts.

Don’t forget to drop me a comment on this week’s column. Ctein has said that he’ll be happy to respond: “…if any of [your readers] have any questions about the novel or the writing process that they want to post as a comment, I’ll be happy to comment in reply.  But no spoilers, please (in the questions or the answers). If you haven’t already registered—it’s free, and just takes a moment—you can register and leave a comment here. Or you can comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. You don’t have to agree with me to post a comment—corrections, differences of opinion, whatever; I’d love to hear from you. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. Or even my wife’s. See you next week!

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