John Sandford's Saturn Run
First, John Sandford has a lot of skill at characterization. This is no surprise; Sandford has been a leading writer of detective fiction for decades and one hallmark of his detective fiction has always been interesting and believeable characters who can sustain reader interest all on their own. Sure enough, Saturn Run opens up with a classic Sandford character, Sanders Darlington, who was able to immediately catch my interest and sustain it until the first, big scifi event smilingly intrudes into the story. Likewise for several other characters in the story. From the first pages, I was able to coast along on the warm, comfortable current of a John Sandford novel.
Secondly, this is a novel of hard science fiction in the tradition of The Martian and that appeals to me. Sandford and Ctein are concerned to show us how a trip to Saturn (that takes less than a year) might actually take place. They're not talking about current technologies but about technologies that we could have in twenty years if we really put our minds to it, as they explain in their postscript.
It's sort of reminiscent of Heinlein's Destination Moon, where Heinlein was concerned above all to show a 1950 movie audience that it was entirely possible for the United States to get to the Moon if Americans just put their minds to it. He was right and twelve years later President John F. Kennedy put our minds to it.
Now, since then some of the sparkle has worn off the idea of exploring the solar system. Heinlein thought we needed to colonize other planets in order to grow food for Earth but nobody believes that anymore and for good reason. Likewise, the old idea that we would settle Mars or Venus or the moons of Jupiter like Europeans settled the American continent is clearly absurd. But it's hard to completely vanquish the feeling that extending the effective range of human civilization to include the rest of the Solar System is something that we really ought to be doing, even if we only do it via robots. Saturn Run scratches that itch.
And they manage to scratch the itch while telling a nice, little adventure story that any reader of popular fiction can enjoy. Now, many reviewers on Goodreads have noted that the plot slows down for the middle third or so, but I'm okay with that. The plot slows down because Sandford and Ctein and presenting the science of the trip, and doing a good job of doing it. If you can't enjoy a clear and intelligent presentation of some cutting edge science, then maybe science fiction isn't your genre.
Speaking of genres, I think that Sandford's skill with creating interesting characters comes from his years of writing stories where the characters have to carry more of the burden of reader interest than in scifi. In scifi, we don't necessarily have to have characters that are compelling in themselves because we have big, shiny, scifi stuff (rocketships, ray guns, robots, time travel, gender fluid societies) to catch and sustain our interest. We like our shiny, scifi baubles and we fully intend to use them so characterization is relatively unimportant in scifi, despite decades of people moaning about the need for scifi to invest more heavily in characterization. Case in point: H.G. Wells never even bothers to tell us the name of the protagonist in War of the Worlds, let alone endow him with emotional conflicts or a backstory. Wells wisely kept his protagonist's personal problems, if any, from getting in the way of the robots from Mars with ray guns and he wrote a scifi classic. When the Tom Cruise movie version came along the studio gave poor Tom's character all kinds of backstory and emotional conflict and tried to make an invasion of Earth by aliens from Mars into a background for Tom's efforts to get his family back. Needless to say the movie fails as both scifi and family drama. RIP and good riddance.
But the point I was making is that I might have to try my hand on something like detective fiction where the characters need to pick up more of the weight. I figure it would probably be good for me as a writer.