Friday, August 7, 2015

Saturn Run: the Review (Costarring Jesus and Derek Zoolander)

Spoilers: I contain multitudes of them

Sometimes, while browsing Netgalley, I'll take a peek at what's going on in Sci-Fi.  Usually, I beat a hasty retreat because there's some series with covers featuring a mostly-naked elven-werewolf hybrid wearing a g-string.  Not my kind of speculative fiction.  I like space opera and alternate worlds and time travel and all that good stuff.  A nice military sci-fi, like something by John Campbell, is also quite fun.  So, while whizzing through the vast galaxy of books on Netgalley one day, I noticed a title by an author that I had actually heard of: John Sandford*.  I said, "Hey, that ... author!  He writes many books!  I have never read one, because I like my thrillers by Lincoln and Child (Pendergast FTW!), but he's a well-established author.  I have shelved his books many times at the library!  What's he doing over here in sci-fi?  This might be good!"

Fatal mistake.  Oh, past self.  How naïve and trusting you were!

Initially, the blurb ticked all my sci-fi boxes: first space trip of its kind?  Check.  Mysterious alien vessel?  Check.  Intra-planetary conflict for control of the solar system?  Check.  While not at all a unique premise, it at least sounded like a fun read.

Saturn Run succeeded in that I did not toss the book away in frustration or anger.  I finished it.  But as a book that aspires to be Real Science Fiction (like Real Men or something) while also telling a story, it completely and utterly tanks.  Especially because the book is about 80% incomprehensible techie info dump, 10% flying around in space, and 10% the President yelling at people.

Here we are, a few decades into the future, and mankind isn't much different.  We've got more stuff flying around in space, but otherwise, eh.  Cars that drive themselves.  A lady President.  Things that are bound to happen anyway have happened.

It's just another boring day at the Caltech science offices for surfer dude Sanders "Sandy" Heacock Darlington, heir to a bucketload of money and seemingly dimwitted doofus.  He is, however, hot (which is always important for a protagonist.  Must be hot). "His eyes were the same deep blue as the Hope Diamond, he had big white teeth ... He had that Jesus hair."  Um, I dunno, but "Jesus hair," to me, is not a hot thing.  To each her own and all that, but I don't think an author can generalize "Jesus hair" as hot.  Would you say, "Wow, baby!" about this hair?

I mean, barring the fact that Jesus was from the Middle East and therefore not Caucasian and probably had dark skin, dark hair, and a beard (because Jewish) ... ANYWAY.  I still do not find sad Jesus hair attractive.  Maybe 50 years in the future it will be all the rage?

Moving on from my tangential locks of Christ musings, epic screwup Sandy manages to be the guy to capture an image of a UFO on one of the Caltech telescopes.  The narrative then moves away from Sandy, the hot pothead Jesus of surfing, to: THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Amanda Santeros wants answers, and she wants them yesterday.  Fletcher, Sandy's boss at Caltech, explains that they've captured footage of a very large cylinder decelerating and rendezvousing with a moonlet in one of Saturn's rings.  It came from outside the solar system and was moving pretty dang fast--much faster than any human craft could possibly go.  Some genius in the room thinks, "Oh my God!  What if it's an alien missile that will slam into the earth, causing global devastation?"  For some reason, everyone latches onto this idea, despite the fact that the craft is currently in Saturn's orbit and didn't come hurtling directly at the earth.  The horrible thought of being the target of an alien vessel galvanizes the President to put together a mission to Saturn.  Oh, and the U.S. has to beat the Chinese there.

See, the Chinese are prepping a vessel to go to Mars.  It's big and it's fast and it's making the Americans feel inadequate [insert juvenile and crass rocket joke here].  Naturally, all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are also convinced that the Chinese will get out to Saturn first and mess up first contact with aliens.  Unless the aliens fling their really big ship at the earth, in which case, game over.

So what do we do?  Haul in a brilliant nuclear engineer from Minnesota, commandeer a space station and turn it into a spaceship, and sneak the actually-not-an-idiot Sandy aboard, disguised as a photographer.  In reality, Sandy was a member of an elite covert-ops corps and is currently suffering from PTSD.  He's seen some bad bantha poodoo go down, and there's a price on his head.  Thus begins an exceedingly big chunk of the book dedicated to mind-numbingly dull statistics about heat diffusion and metal extrusion and initial burn.

It.  Is.  So.  Boring.  I mean, I hope I'm not an idiot (or even a model idiot) ...

... but I had to stare at a lot of passages like this: "In space, there was only one way to get rid of heat, and that was by radiation.  At room temperature, it would take roughly a square kilometer of radiator to get rid of a gigawatt of heat.  She needed to get rid of several ... At five hundred degrees Celsius, she could dump forty times as much heat per square meter of radiator; six hundred degrees Celsius would be even better."  And there's just reams of this.

Wait until you get to the description of the metal extrusion radiation process!!!  I mean, I get what's going on: engines make heat, you have to dissipate heat, but that takes mass, which slows down the ship, etc.  However, I've read books by Alastair Reynolds where he describes physics in such a way as to make you feel smart, like you actually know something about up-quarks.  He makes it interesting and fun.  This was neither interesting nor fun.  More on that when I get to the afterward of the book.

Aliens can't stay secret forever, though, and the alien vessel docked out at Saturn turns on its antimatter engine and tootles back out of the galaxy.  So much for the whole "ahhhh it's a missile!" theory.  But a big flare of antimatter catches everyones attention, including *ominous music plays* the Chinese, who manage to retrofit their Mars ship with extra zip and blast off ahead of the Americans.  Oh noes!  This is a Big Problem.  If the Chinese get to the alien tech first, then they WIN and America LOSES which simply cannot happen.  Because 'Murica.

So the scientists cook up this scheme to slingshot around the sun and zip out and beat the Chinese to Saturn.  YEAH SCIENCE!  This is, of course, highly dangerous, being as the sun is the sun and has occasional solar flares, storms, and spots that could obliterate the ship.

Oh, I forgot to tell you the name of the ship.  It's the Nixon.  Because Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon did so much for the America-China relationship.

More science-babble happens, and the Nixon is underway.  So now that they're safely (HA HA HA HA HA!) underway, the authors throw in a little character development.  Oof.  Sandy and the news correspondent aboard the ship, the mucho-sexy Fiorella, find out that the entire crew has rigged up a gambling pool for people to bet on when the two of them have sex.  They, along with the mildly curmudgeonly John Clover (an exoanthropologist who the government thinks totally needs to be there, but then disappears for large portions of the narrative) figure that they'll game the pool and win all the money themselves.

But Sandy's not actually into Fiorella.  He begins a liaison with Becca, and just when things start to get serious ... guess.

Okay, I'll give you some hints.  The Nixon is approaching Saturn.  Because of velocity and gravity and other physics things, they have to decelerate (obviously).  But a spacecraft doesn't come with a set of brakes.  Based on the sci-fi I've read, there are a few popular ways to decelerate from a relatively high speed.  The one used here is also commonly used in John Campbell's The Lost Fleet series: basically, the ship flips so that the front is now the back and vice versa and the engines fire up, creating thrust against the inertia of the ship and slowing it down.

Now, bear with me for a moment.  Humans have never done this before.  Literally.  Never performed this maneuver before outside of practice maneuvers in orbit.  The authors have spent roughly five billion pages discussing the pros of using VASIMR engines over nuclear ones and we get this wee blurb: "The Nixon had reached the point where it would stop accelerating outward from the sun, turn tail-forward, and begin the three-month process of decelerating into Saturn."  Nobody seems particularly concerned about the idea of flipping the ungainly Nixon (it looks kind of like a giant flying scaffold) in space for the first time.  I mean, the authors didn't even bother talking deceleration until we got to this point, and then it was all, "Uh, crap.  We gotta decelerate.  Here we go!"  The book states that "the process wasn't all that difficult" and "the crew wasn't overly worried."  Call me a worrywart, but if I were inside a spaceship that had never been tested in stressful conditions, and you fired up the engines and made the ship do a somersault, I'd be more than a tad panicky.

Of course, something goes wrong, and Becca and Sandy perform an EVA to assess the damage.  Now, humans have clearly learned nothing from more than a century of science fiction films and books: EVA=death.  This death is a rather convenient way of introducing more stress into Sandy's life and tucking him away for most of the remainder of the book.  After all, his PTSD could turn him into wild Rambo, so let's just bury the only quasi-interesting character we've got in a haze of drugs.

But yay, we've made it to Saturn!  We've successfully sent people to the alien moonlet!  We've started talking to a rudimentary AI that looks like a Wurlizter jukebox, so the humans call him Wurly!  Sooooooo cute, amirite, like omigosh!

Wurly explains that the moonlet is an intergalactic depot where different species can come and trade for tech.  The Americans are just so chuffed to be there before the Chinese that they take everything they can from Wurly, and give him things like fabbed guitars in trade.  Clearly, the aliens are running some sort of scam, here, because don't tell me that no other inter(or intra, in this case)stellar species have created a stringed instrument before.

Evidently, the aliens (whichever the original ones were/are) set up these trading posts to give out tech to species who could access it, thus giving them a tech boost.  From there, the aliens could assess whether the species was worth pursuing as a business partner, leaving alone, or exterminating.  But Wurly says that there's no reason to fear the maker-aliens, so it's all good, right?

The delusion is strong with these Americans.  In addition, while they play nice with Wurly and don't try and steal the antimatter stored around the moonlet, they assume that the arriving Chinese will also play nice, even after they (the Chinese) find out that the Americans have taken all of the crucial data, since each species can only get one copy.

As you can imagine, things do not turn out well. Because the Chinese ship was so hastily retrofitted, it is ill-equipped to deal with the disaster that is aero-braking in Saturn's atmosphere.  The captain of the ship, Zhang, is a good man, though--moral, thoughtful, and respectful.  His XO, Cui, is impulsive but smart.  It's PO Duan they've got to watch out for, since the Political Officer acts in the best interests of the Party's reputation and not that of the crew.  Once they figure out that the Americans have taken all the goodies and fled, everyone pitches a temper tantrum.  Bound and determined to get something out of this trip, Duan attempts to remove alien tech from one of the antimatter storage units.

Guess how well that turns out.

Well, at least it hastened us toward the end (finally!).  The Chinese ship is completely disabled and won't make it back to Earth before the crew die, so they rendezvous with the Americans for rescue.  About five chapters are spent with the Americans worrying "What if they try to take the ship?  We don't have enough weapons?  What should we do?"  And then they make one of the most mindbogglingly stupid decisions ever.

If the Chinese take the ship, selected crew members have the capability to destroy the eight minicomputers full of antimatter-making-tech information, as well as wipe the Nixon's memory banks of all the info transmitted in a more traditional manner.  This is called cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Yes.  Let's just stomp our feet and say, "If America can't have it, no one can!"  What happened to "for the good of all mankind"?  I guess when you're a politico, that means "for the good of all mankind except for people we don't like, neener-neener-neener."

Thankfully, the book ends soon after this,  Unfortunately, it's one of those slapped-together endings that happen when the authors have been juggling about ten balls but only have four collective hands in which to catch them.  A lot of Rather Important Plot Points either attempt to sneak away from the reader or explode in a spectacular fashion.  For example, the exoanthropologist, Clover, pitches an almighty fit when Crow, the Man in Black, comes to fetch him.  This is all about his cat, you see.  He's not going without the cat.  In the last chapter, we discover that "Mr. Snuffles had died of a heart attack three weeks out."  Why, why, why, why, WHY was there such an to-do about the cat if you were just going to forget about him and then conveniently kill him?

And it's not just the cat.  One of the big mysteries during the story is who sabotaged the second reactor aboard the Nixon.  Was it done pre- or post-launch?  Who did it?  Likewise, the Americans quickly figure out that someone is leaking information to the Chinese, but everyone's bank accounts come up clean--no dirty laundry.  Crow and Sandy pull out their hair trying to figure out who is smuggling this info out, and how.  I thought it was one of the more interesting conundrums.  At the end, this is the oh-so-satisfying explanation:

"'Did you ever catch your spy?'
'Can't talk about that.'
'Did you ever figure out how he was communicating with the Chinese?'
'No, never did.'
'I read that [crew member name redacted] died when the GPS went crazy on a twentywheeler, swerved across the road and killed [him/her].'"

I am now going to quote from the AUTHORS' NOTE: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE STORY, which they claim will spoil the novel, but I think it was already spoiled.

Basically, they say that their book is so much better than other sci-fi books because it doesn't use "'wantum mechanics,'" i.e. stuff that sounds science-y but doesn't actually exist.  Then the authors launch into an incredibly condescending "explanation" of rocket science which, luckily, all worked out with a knowledge of "high-school Newton's laws stuff."  They end with, "Real rocket science.  We think we did it pretty well."  tl; dr "Our book is way better than other sci-fi books written by good sci-fi writers because ours could actually happen because we are sooooo smart."  I find that incredibly insulting to everyone else who writes sci-fi and speculative fiction.  Just because something couldn't happen according to the laws of physics as we know them (and I'm pretty sure there's a room of scientists somewhere whose job it is to eternally argue about what quantum physics actually means**) does not mean it is an inferior book.

I am really sorry that I subjected you to a review this long.  I just had so many things to say about this book.  The last thing is: pick something else to read.

*Sandford co-authored this with a man named Ctein, who is a photographer with a dual-degree from Caltech in English and Physics.  He is a self-described artist whose homepage looks like something hosted on Geocities in 1999.

**It changes every time it's observed, so this is a toughie.


  1. Thank you for sparing me the last third of this plodding mess. I have always enjoyed John Sanford and can't believe that he was responsible for this.

    1. I know! I was shocked as well. When I saw this available as a galley, I assumed it would be really tight and well-done. Alas! Stay away from the sci-fi, Sanford.

  2. Thank you for this! I'm just past where Sandy and Becka had hooked up and I just couldn't do it anymore.

    1. Ha! I think I must have wiped reading this book from my memory, which I highly suggest you do too! Thanks so much for reading.