Thursday, February 16, 2017

John Sandford Leaves His Usual Haunts for a Saturn Run

When I heard John Sandford announce a couple of years ago that he was writing a science-fiction novel, my first reaction was to be disappointed, principally because that meant there would be no Virgil Flowers novel published in 2015. I'm a big fan of Virgil's and I'm not that big a fan of sci-fi, so I figured that, on balance, this would be a loss. As is so often the case, though, it turns out that I was wrong. Even though this is a sci-fi tale, it has all the trademarks of a John Sandford novel, which means that it's enormously entertaining.

This is not a story featuring strange alien creatures from distant worlds set far out into the future. Rather, it focuses principally on people from earth on a journey through space in the relatively near future. In 2066, the United States has sophisticated space stations orbiting the earth and China, now the nation's principal superpower rival, is preparing a mission to colonize Mars. But then an intern at Caltech, running a routine check after adjustments to a space telescope, discovers an anomaly in some photographs taken in the direction of Saturn. And even someone who doesn't normally read science fiction realizes that when somebody discovers an anomaly, this is probably a pretty big deal.

And so it is.

The computers confirm that some giant object is approaching Saturn and, more important, that it's decelerating. The fact that it's slowing down can only mean that it's a spaceship of some sort--natural objects don't behave this way in space. Since this was a totally random discovery, for the moment only the U.S. realizes what has happened. Very quietly, under directions from the president, a U.S. space station is reconfigured as a space ship to go to Saturn and figure out what the hell is going on out there. The official story is that we've decided to join the Chinese on their mission to Mars, and the hope is that before the Chinese or anyone else discovers what we're really doing, the U.S. will have a head start toward Saturn and no one else will be able to do anything about it.

Those plans are upended, though, when the mysterious space vehicle leaves Saturn in a blaze of propulsion that is noticed around the world. The secret is out and the Chinese quickly repurpose their Mars expedition to go to Saturn. Thus the race is on as the two superpowers compete to see which can get to Saturn first and perhaps gain an advance in knowledge that would give them world domination for years to come and, perhaps, forever.

Sandford and his co-author Ctein, have created a great cast of characters. Fans of Sandford's will recognize the type of characters that he likes to create and will bond with them pretty quickly. Sandford's quirky humor is also on display and, while none of the cast is on a level with that F***in' Flowers, at least a couple of them are a lot of fun. The technology involved is, for the most part, based on science that is readily available now and does not require any real suspension of disbelief. No one in this book, for example, will suddenly be going into Warp Drive.

As is the case with any novel by John Sandford, the story moves at a rapid pace and the suspense is palpable. The stakes in this race are very high, and the payoff at the end is well worth waiting for. I'm really glad that I finally got around to reading this book, but that said, I'm also very happy to know that I now have a new Virgil Flowers novel waiting in the wings as well.

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