Saturn’s Race, by Larry Niven, Steven Barnes

saturns-race-by-larry-niven-steven-barnes coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by David Hart

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The year is 2020, and some things have changed. Corporations have more power, national governments less. The Council, an alliance of corporations, has constructed Xanadu, one of several floating islands; part habitat, part Oceanic Thermal Energy Converter, and also a base for scientific research. Dolphins are helped to speak, sharks are given tentacles or arms. Both have their brains enhanced; and so do humans. Meanwhile the pressures of hunger and disease in the rest of the world are reduced by Xanadu’s exports of fish protein and electricity, and by their medical teams. Lenore Myles is a student invited to Xanadu with the rest of her graduation class, so that some of them can be recruited to work on the island. At first all goes well, but then she stumbles onto a secret that the Council’s villainous inner circle will happily kill to keep hidden.

For me, the description of the setting is one of the good features of the book. I have a weakness for “We could do this if we really tried” technologies like Xanadu, and it is nice to meet again the OTEC that I remember from Pournelle’s A Step Further Out: the energy source with the piscine pollutant. If the timescale for some of the technology seems optimistic, well this is SF after all. Conversely the politics feel rather 1980ish, with worries about over-powerful corporations. However the main problem with the science fiction aspect is that we get told all of it in the first 80 pages. After that the book becomes a thriller in an SF setting; fine in itself, but the reduction in the gee-whiz factor is noticeable.

As you would expect from Niven and Barnes, the writing is good without being intrusive, and doesn’t get in the way of the story. The characterization is so so. There are a couple of sections of the book where the action slows and characterization becomes deeper, but these are the exception. The three main protagonists are reasonably well drawn. The villains get little time on stage, and as a result we lack information about their character and motives.

This is very much a plot-driven book. There are four sub-plots within the main one. Of these the augmented marine-life sub-plot seems somewhat peripheral at first, but is eventually incorporated into the main story. All of them work well and are self-consistent. So, superficially, does the main plot; but looking deeper there is a hole. There is no adequate explanation of the inner Council’s motivation, and none at all for that of the main villain. Their complex plan, carried out over many years, will clearly end up damaging Xanadu and the Council itself; indeed this seems in part to be an intended consequence. Yet I can’t see what advantages they were expecting to receive in return.

So perhaps it’s not a book to analyse too carefully. Instead enjoy the thriller aspect of it, the Utopian near-future technology, the action. At this level the book is well worth a read.

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