“Hard” doesn’t mean “difficult.” More like “real.” No magic swords or last-minute rescues by elves in hard scifi.
An American telescope detects an object entering orbit around Saturn. Natural objects don’t act this way – it must be under intelligent control and no one else on Earth seems to have noticed. The Chinese are about to launch a colony to Mars, so they could quickly repurpose the mission and beat America to Saturn and whatever awaits there. So the race is on with only America aware they’re running – at first.
No Wantum Mechanics
A large part of the story follows how the characters turn an existing Earth-orbiting space station into a ship that can reach Saturn in a remarkably short time. The authors reject “wantum mechanics,” or “totally made-up non-science that saves the crew in the last dozen minutes of a bad Star Trek episode. ‘Captain, if we invert the polarity of the phasers and couple them to the warp drive, we can produce a beam of… unbelievablon particles.'”
As explained in the fascinating Authors’ Note, they spent a lot of time solving their technical problems, even running orbit simulations in a special Windows program. Saturn Run shares every bit of that effort with you. They admit to one piece of wantum mechanics, but given what that is (no spoilers in this review!), I think it fits the story.
What you get
are loads of technical descriptions and political machinations in a story that runs 448 pages in my epub edition. The story may be engaged in a race to Saturn, but the book is leisurely, taking its time to explore technology and present characters.
For example, one engineer is seated on a Virgin-SpaceX shuttle (nice tie-in to real-life) about to leave Earth for the space station. Instead of taking off right away, the story regresses to describing her amazingly automated apartment and the details of propulsion problems.
There’s even a cat on the mission – a detail I especially like since I sent a cat to the first colony on Mars in my book (shameless plug) Glory on Mars.
Here’s a taste of the book’s style:
• The f-bomb pops up quite a few times. [Meh. I’ve gotten used to it.]
• “A thousand kilometers above the Washington machinations, Captain Naomi Fang-Castro wrapped up the last meeting of the day, a report on the ongoing repairs to backup electrical storage units. The repair work was fine, but there was a shortage of critical parts…” [Space can be as tedious as your job.]
• “She wasn’t an obligate vegetarian and vegetarianism wasn’t obligatory in space, especially not if you were the station commander.” [Interesting detail.]
• “He ripped off the top of the envelope, using the dangling ribbon that protruded from one end.” [How about – He ripped the envelope open.]
• “The ten o-clock train arrived three minutes after she walked onto the platform. She scampered aboard, sank into a seat, and sighed. She was twenty minutes from downtown Minneapolis, not much to see on the way but endless tracks of suburban houses. Way too late for sanity’s sake, and Senior Star power engineers didn’t get overtime.” [Not just technical issues get detailed treatments.]
• “Massive-scale heat pipes with fractal fluidic passages to pump the energy from the fissioning fuel into boiling superheated fluids that drove the generator turbines. Thermomagnetic liquids and magnetic pumps and transformers to siphon waste heat.” [The authors assure me this isn’t simply techno-babble.]
• “He lived in a condo complex built around an enormous swimming pool, and populated by affluent, good-looking people. Most affluent people were good-looking, not because they inherited the right genes, but because the surgery was so good and painless and safe.” [Basically irrelevant to the story.]
• “When the station personnel paused by the window, framed in a rectangle slightly wider than it was high, they looked like paintings by Caravaggio.” [This didn’t help me much – I had to look up Caravaggio, who gets mentioned three times. Therefore, the picture above – by Caravaggio.]
• “… unhitched the lid… pressed it up against… nudged the controller… fifteen-second pan… killed his rotation… did a slow zoom-in… moved closer… alarm beeped.” [I’m getting tired of typing, and admit I got tired of reading at times, too. I skimmed ahead to the part I was waiting for.]
How Saturn Run stacks up
From the common-wisdom writing advice I’ve read, only an established money-making author could get this much “telling” past an editor. But, the day I checked, Saturn Run was ranked 15th in its Kindle category (scifi space exploration) out of 2,235 titles. That means it’s selling in the top 1%. And you can’t claim Sandford’s reputation suckered buyers in. The book has 4/5 stars from 600 reviews.
But clearly this book is for fans of hard science fiction.
Glory on Mars is also called hard science fiction, but the flavor is a bit different – no physics lessons 🙂 since these are real people going to live the rest of their lives on Mars. The first colonists to Mars have taken a one-way trip and that leaves them alone to face danger on the Red Planet. Journey with them as they struggle to establish their colony and explore Mars near Olympus Mons, the largest (extinct!) volcano in the solar system.