Saturn Run (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2015): This dry procedural is about a voyage to Saturn. Its tone is neutral and in ways it reminded me of The Martian, where an astronaut marooned on Mars struggles to survive. The problems that arise in this novel are not especially surprising—technical malfunctions--and the means by which the crew acts to solve them at the least seem plausible.
The reason for the trip to Saturn is the discovery of what appears to be an alien spaceport on a small moon embedded in one of the rings. The Americans want to get out there to see what sort of alien technology they can recover. So do the Chinese. This novel is part melodrama, part space race, part political intrigue, part science fiction. It’s readable, but barely so. It offers up the usual assortment of futuristic characters—a surfer dude who is really a high-level digital videographer who is also a secret military commando, a lesbian space captain, a fat ex-football player with an elderly cat, and so on. Despite the high tech, the exoticism of a voyage to Saturn where aliens may lay in wait, the tone of the novel is fairly humdrum.
The real point of interest in Saturn Run is what the voyagers discover when they arrive. The aliens themselves are long gone. In a building on the moonlet is a small workstation that answers questions. It’s like Siri, but with a database of hundreds of thousands of questions and a fairly sophisticated artificial intelligence. The station will answer some questions and not others. It’s willing to trade alien technology for cultural artifacts—music, art, etc. So the alien presence on Mars—not a drooling lizard-like creature, not a monolith, not a little green man--is a Siri-like monopoly game. This is hilarious on the one hand, a let down on the other. In the end, it serves us right.