The Tortoise and the Hare

Saturn Run — John Sandford & Ctein


Ctein and John Sandford’s Saturn Run came out to great acclaim in 2015. I am a big fan of hard SF set in our solar system, so I was very interested. At the same time I am incredibly cheap, so I didn’t run out and buy it. Instead, I put a hold on it at my local library1. My decision to seek it out via my local library gave me a useful measure of just how popular it is, because I had to renew my reserve request twice and it still took six months for the book to show up in my spot on Kitchener Public Library’s hold shelf.

Having read it, I am very curious as to how certain plot elements have been received both inside the US and outside it.

Six decades into the 21st century, one unmotivated but very lucky grad student is in the right place at the right time to witness the detection of an alien starship. The aliens seemingly have no interest in Earth. Instead they go into orbit around Saturn, rendezvousing with … something.

By the time China and America can dispatch expeditions to Saturn, the aliens are gone. But whatever it was that they visited is still orbiting Saturn. It might offer untold treasure to whoever can reach it first! (Or perhaps a devastating plague, but who could imagine a downer like that?)

Both the US and Chinese expeditions face significant challenges.

The Chinese had a crewed mission ready, but its intended destination was Mars, not the far more distant Saturn. Retrofitting the nuclear-thermal rocket for a trip twenty times as long requires cutting the crew to a bare minimum, while accepting some risky orbital manoeuvres at Saturn.

The US takes different tack, retrofitting a space station into the interplanetary space craft Nixon. In addition to the obvious retrofitting issues, the US will be using the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket. The notion of the VASIMR was first proposed decades ago, but this is the first time anyone has actually built and used such a rocket. It remains to be seen if the proposed solutions to crucial issues like cooling will actually work.

At the end of the journey, first contact with aliens. Very little is known about them but what is clear is that they command vast energies. The fact the aliens must be aware of humans combined with the fact they have not burned us from the face of the Earth suggest they are at least neutral towards us. At least for now. Who can say how the aliens will feel once they meet their first American in the flesh?

[**Editor’s note: that is a Canadian being snarky. Hmmmph.]


Sandford is a novelist; although he is prolific, this is the first book of his that I have read. Ctein, of course, needs no introduction.

As I read this, I was reminded of older works like Moffitt’s The Jupiter Theft or Stephenson’s Nightwatch. It’s not just the common subject matter; this is an oddly archaic book. There are a few details that will allow future generations to work out when this was written (at least once they find out what BoingBoing was), but much of the book could have been written twenty or forty years ago.

It’s not just the somewhat arbitrary plot developments that shoehorn humans into a story set near Saturn. The Solar System of 2068 (?) is an eerily familiar one. If there are any dramatic differences between the Solar System as we understand it now and the Solar System as it will be understood with another half century of exploration, I missed them. Given the discoveries we have made in the last year, let alone the last fifty years, this is implausible worldbuilding2.

The Earth of the 2060s is also a surprisingly unsurprising one. Apparently the next half century will have its dramatic events, but they will resemble past events of recent history. Which I guess might be reassuring for anyone afraid that a plutocrat with a tribble on his head might become POTUS and run amok. Still, when was the last time the Earth went a full half century without some truly astounding, truly unexpected development? This is a world without black swans3.

Well, almost. There are two odd elements, and I really hope they don’t have anything to do with each other. I should note that both of these had to be pointed out to me by Americans.

The first is that even though this is set in part in November 2068, the American Presidential election is never mentioned. In my defence, even despite recent changes to Canadian election law, I don’t think in terms of fixed election dates but once my attention was drawn to the date, it did seem very curious that the election played no role in the plot (and vice versa). In fact, I cannot recall any evidence the US still has elections at all.

The other thing I overlooked is that of course the demographics of the US in 2068 will be very different from the demographics of the US now, just as the demographics of the US in 2016 are different than they were in 1964. The US is a work in progress. But there’s no real hint of the changes we should expect. It’s a very 2016 cast of characters.

As I say, I hope the apparent lack of elections and the apparent disappearance of certain groups from the US landscape are not in any way connected, that this is not, like Nilsson’s The Point4, yet another story with implied mass graves in the backstory.

This book is obsessed with heat transfer—an obsession which I applaud. No, I am not being sarcastic (for once). It’s nice when someone seriously considers the implications of basic thermo for systems processing gigawatts (and more) worth of energy5. I was also pleased that this book did not imagine a seemingly endless cold war. The US and China are rivals, but it’s a rivalry for influence and prestige, not a blind stagger towards nuclear war.

I am guessing that my readers will have a variety of opinions on whether or not the US expedition should grab the whole [spoiler] for itself, or whether it should share with the rest of the Earth. I would not be surprised if opinions on this matter tended to split along national lines, with, say, everyone from a nation that did not contribute materially to crewed space exploration feeling the results should be shared, while those whose nations did fund such efforts tending more towards the view that the people who pay the piper should be allowed to call the tune.

Between the Americans and Chinese, the outcome of this first contact is sub-optimal, But it could have gone a lot worse than it did. Consider, for example, the first contact between Vikings and the so-called Skraelings or the first contact between modern Europeans and the Sadlermiut. Even trade between two cultures who are hazily aware of each other can go poorly. I would regard any outcome of first contact with aliens in which humanity is not wiped out as a win.

I found this interesting, but only from a somewhat distanced perspective. I am outside the target demographic; I am a hard SF fan, but not an American one; the whole US versus China thing has the same resonance “British Empire versus Russia” might have had for an American in 1850. I wasn’t actively repelled by the characters, but I cannot remember their names.

Still, an SF novel that explicitly rejects the idea of workable interstellar imperialism is an interesting novelty. For me, this is just another tile on a mosaic called “near future first contact novels.” Others may find the book more interesting.

Saturn Run is available here.

1: Just how local depends on the details of the on-going Light Rail Project that lies smack dab between me and the library. The project is given to digging up strategic intersections with no notice.

2: Rather like the assumption in Varley’s 1979 novel Titan that by 2025, no moons of Saturn other than those eleven known of in 1979 would have been discovered. Of course, three new moons were discovered in 1980 alone. The current count is 62.

3: Possibly a universe without black swans: a [spoiler] recounts the sad ends of other galactic civilizations. All those sad ends are due to problems with which we are familiar. Nothing surprising, like the species controlling the computer simulation that is our universe resetting the physical constant dial, or attacks by sentient interstellar dust clouds.

4: Why would there be laws about unpointed people if there had never been any unpointed people? The existence of those laws and the current near-total absence of the unpointed paint a grim picture of the history of the Land of Point.

5: I do think the alien starships would have been a lot more visible than they are. But “Galileo spots the exhaust of alien starships near Saturn” would have been a different book.

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