Yesterday was Christmas, so I did nothing much at all. Well, I did a few things.
I have rediscovered the joy of a pair of good thick wool socks. Seriously, people! Warm wool on a cold day? You cannot go wrong.
We spent the evening in the big city of St Cloud, having a traditional Christmas dinner with our son at a Chinese restaurant.
And I spent most of the day reading a book. Not any of the science books piled up on my desk, but a thriller. I felt a bit guilty about it, but then decided that nah, I get to take a full day off and screw around. It’s good for the brain to take a break. Also, cozy warm feet take an amazing amount of tension out of your life.
If you’ve visited the Pharyngula store, you may have noticed that one of the items on my “What I’m reading now” is Saturn Run, by John Sandford and Ctein. A little backstory: my daughter knows Sandford’s son (he was at her wedding, for instance), and he has indulged us with his father’s books. We got sent the whole catalog of Sandford’s novels several years ago, and I went through them all like popcorn. Going on a trip? Grab a random paperback out of the Sandford box. They’re a good, fast read: serial killers and maverick detectives, you know the genre, set in Minneapolis.
But now Sandford is trying something different: science fiction, which actually turned out to be more of a near-future techno-thriller, with alien technology as the MacGuffin. Don’t go in expecting a first contact novel: it’s not. An interstellar spacecraft is spotted docking with a satellite in Saturn’s rings, and then zipping away, so the race is on: the Chinese and Americans all rush to get a spacecraft to the mysterious distant object first. I’ll give a minor plot point away — it’s an automated refueling station for aliens, but no aliens are there, although the artificial intelligence running it is friendly and obliging and will trade a limited quanitity of technological information to visitors. It’s actually an interesting proposition, that there’s a diverse collection of intelligences Out There, limited by the speed of light, and that they have a kind of barter system set up at these refueling stations, where they hand out some information to get primitive cultures up to a level where they are good trading partners, and otherwise it’s all a kind of barter system: leave something, you get to take something of equal worth.
So that’s the whole science-fictional premise laid out for you, and it’s not much — it’s the rug that really ties the room together, or the Maltese Falcon, or the Crystal Skull. The orbiting alien station is just the Lost Temple or the Hidden Fortress or the exotic kingdom in the mountains. It really doesn’t matter, the story is about how the heroes get there.
I rather suspect that Ctein provided the technological details. The Americans have to rapidly convert a space station into an ion-drive-propelled high-speed vehicle that can get to Saturn within two years. There’s a lot of gadgetry and speculative physics in this part of the story, with Things That Go Wrong and Disasters That Must Be Overcome. If you liked The Martian, this will appeal.
What I think Sandford brought to the story was the conflict, plot twists, and characters. There’s the undercover supersoldier with the trauma in his past; the cunning spy mastermind who’s keeping the situation under control; the brilliant nuclear power engineer who makes it all possible (and she’s from Minnesota, of course); the strong and decisive spaceship captain. Most of the novel is taken up with in-flight drama. How will they make it work? How will the crew cope with the sexual tension of two years in space? Is there sabotage (of course there is sabotage!) Who is the Chinese spy? What will happen when the American and Chinese spaceships arrive at the alien artifact at roughly the same time?
It’s a pretty good read. And at 496 pages, it’s the extra large box of popcorn.
There is, unfortunately, one thing I cannot forgive the author. The name of the American spaceship. It’s called the Richard M. Nixon. Noooooo!