John Sandford and Ctein
Completed 7/4/2019, Reviewed 7/5/2019
I was worried about reading this book club selection because it sounded like space opera. It turns out it wasn’t exactly space opera. It was more like a spaceship captain’s log with character development. The narrator is third person omniscient, and the perspectives are from a multitude of characters. But it generally had a dry reporting style, even during the few exciting scenes. I didn’t dislike the book, and in the end, I finally felt immersed in the world and the people. But it was slow going through most of it.
The story begins with the discovery of an object approaching Saturn and slowing down. Natural objects don’t slow down, so it must be an alien spacecraft. Further analysis reveals it has stopped in one of the gaps in Saturn’s rings. The object leaves shortly afterwards using antimatter propulsion. It’s discovered that some alien artifact remains in the ring gap. The US decides to build a spaceship to travel to this location and meet the aliens, or whatever is there. They try to keep it under wraps, but everyone else also sees the antimatter trail. China decides to retrofit a Mars colony ship for a journey to Saturn, and the race is on. The tale is about the Americans’ journey there and their confrontation with China when they arrive.
As I stated earlier, the book reads like a captain’s log, or a combination with an engineer’s entries. There’s lots of hard science, and there’s a fair amount of character development. There are a lot of characters and the author does a pretty good job of developing them in between the hard science. What’s really missing is action. It begins with some excitement, but the rest of the first half or so reflects the drudgery of a long space mission. That’s where the hard science comes in. The authors spend a lot of time explaining the physics of the different aspects of space flight and life in space. If you are not scientifically oriented, this could be a slog. Even I found it slow-going. But it was still readable. I simply felt like nothing was happening for the majority of the book.
Finally towards the end, when we reach Saturn, things begin to happen. But even here, the book was rather slow paced. And again, the journalistic style of the writing was a little dry. This book is touted as a science fiction thriller, and thrillers are what Sanford is known for, but it’s not really much of a thrill ride. It feels simply like someone is reporting the events to the reader. Interestingly enough, there is a reporter and a cameraperson in the American crew, though the story is not their reporting.
The characters were pretty good. There are some stand-outs, like Becca Johansson, the brilliant engineer with a forceful personality that she developed so people would take her seriously. Sandy Darlington is the cameraperson, who on the surface appears to be a slacker surfer dude waiting to inherit his family’s massive fortune, but hides a secret that gives him much more substance than he incites. The book has a good female/male balance where there are almost no issues of sexism, although there is a pool to guess when Sandy, known for his sexual appetite, beds the reporter he works with. Once the ships get to Saturn, we are introduced to some Chinese characters as well. At first, I was concerned that introducing so many new characters at the end of the book would be overwhelming. But it turned out that only a few of them took the forefront and their names were different enough to easily differentiate between them.
I give the book three stars out of five. I think I could have given it four stars if there was a little more going on throughout the book, rather than keeping it all for the end. Perhaps my expectation for a book by an author known for his thrillers (Sanford) tainted my enjoyment of it. Overall, I’m glad I read it and would recommend it to people who aren’t afraid of a little, ok, a lot, of science.