Book Review: Saturn Run

I’ve been meaning to post this review for a while, but this book was one I needed some perspective on. It isn’t often that I will read a book, not like it, but still feel that it deserves my recommendation for what it is and what it tries to accomplish. Saturn Run reads more like a technical manual on how NASA should try to send a manned mission to Saturn than a science fiction novel. It focuses a lot on the “how” and “where,” but doesn’t spend a lot of energy on the “who” or “why..” Fans of the more technical aspects of The Martian may enjoy this. It’s been out for a few years, so you can likely pick it up from a bargain bin for cheap, or better yet, grab it from your local library.

Saturn Run
Written by John Sandford and Ctein and released in 2015, Saturn Run is a hard science fiction story about a race to the rings of Saturn between the US and China. Whoever gets there first will control the advance of technology on Earth over the next thousand years. You sold yet?

I know I was.

And yet, I couldn’t help but feel some disappointment with Saturn Run. Here are the things that usually throw me out of a book (in no particular order): viewpoint that alternates between close 3rd person and omniscient with no warning; poor storytelling technique (example: placing a scene break in the middle of a conversation and then picking up exactly where it left off in the next scene, literally two carriage returns down on the page); and too much emotional foreshadowing without any payoff.

Saturn Run hits every single one of my pet peeves. I could never tell what point of view I was in. There were constant build ups of, “OMG, something could go terribly wrong and we’ll all die!” And yet, I felt like everything went too smoothly all the time. Yes, there were problems, but the over-foreshadowed events that never materialized left me feeling like there were missed opportunities. The story as a whole was cohesive and realistic, but most books that I gravitate to tend to have outlandish and over the top action. That left me wanting more through no fault of these authors.

Lastly, there seemed to be a drought in likable characters. The authors start the book by introducing you to the biggest womanizer in the world, set him up to be the protagonist, and then dare you to keep reading. Luckily, he ends up being a decent human being. So much, in fact, that I can’t help but feel like the introduction was completely out of place and was there from a previous draft that somehow managed to sneak through revision.

And yet, there is something compelling about what Saturn Run is trying to accomplish. It is a hard science fiction novel without over-dramatization and without unnecessary plot twists. This book focuses on the “how” and “where” of a new space race without worrying itself with with silly things (sarcasm) such as having strong, sympathetic characters. Even the plot itself is just set dressing for what seems to be a thought exercise on how humanity could claim the stars. Sure, the promise of technology millennia ahead of our own is enticing, but it’s a trope that is overused and Saturn Run doesn’t add anything new there.

But the science! The glorious science! Sandford and Ctein present some truly unique ideas on how to overcome some very specific challenges. In the book, the US and China select very different methods on how to get to Saturn, and we get to see that challenges that each face. For example, the US needs to find a way to dissipate heat from their oversized nuclear reactors. Their solution, a continuously extruding thermal radiator utilizing molten metal spun out into space and gathered back into the reserves by magnets. Cool, right?

I would tentatively recommend Saturn Run to readers who like Greg Bear (although Bear has more likable characters, in my opinion), especially if you can pick it up at your local library or in the bargain bin and to those who enjoy the engineering challenges presented in The Martian. Amazon has it for $10 in Kindle edition and hardcover and $7.50 in paperback here. Reviews are mixed on Goodreads, so I know I’m not the only one that thinks the science in this book is solid, but that the plot seems a bit bland. You can read other opinions here and decide whether Saturn Run is something you might be interested in.

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