Weekly Read: Saturn Run

As I think I’ve said before, one of my least favorite criticism of a book or movie is that it “has no plot.” Unless we’re talking about some really experimental stuff, every story has a plot because in every story SOMETHING happens. It might not be huge, it might not be life changing, but it’s something. What folks mean when they say that, I’ve decided, is not that “nothing happens,” but that “nothing happens that I care about.” In other words, the events of the story just wash over you and leave no residue.

It would be wrong to say nothing happens in Saturn Run, a collaboration between novelist John Sandford and Ctein (the first a long-time writer of thrillers, the second an artist, apparently). Quite a bit happens, given the setup and all, but I can safely say that nothing happens that I cared about, at least until the last quarter of the book or so. By that point, I couldn’t be roused to give much of a shit.

The setup is fairly standard – an alien ship appears in our solar system, is discovered by accident, and we humans head out to make first contact. What Saturn Run adds to the mix is a race to get there run by American and Chinese spacecraft, each taking different routes using different tech to make it to Saturn first. We spend almost all of the first three quarters of the book on the American ship (including its dealings with the American government back here on Earth), which wins the race. It’s reward? Being the first to a kind of interstellar truck stop full of fuel, science, and tech. Actual aliens are nowhere to be found.

The journey to get there is long and shot through with lots of technical data dumps, but precious little of concern actually happens. Partly this is down to the characters, who basically just function as pieces to move around as the plot requires. The closest thing to a main character, Sandy, begins as a skirt-chasing surfer waiting to inherit family money, only for us to learn he’s actually a kick ass solder suffering from PTSD; but he goes back to surfer mode on the trip while acting as the official expedition cinematographer (at which he’s also kick ass). None of this ultimately matters, since he has no motivation and we don’t care why he does anything he does.

In fact, it’s hard to care about anything that happens. For instance, before the American ship (named after Richard Nixon, a clever nod to his dealings with China) leaves Earth orbit there is a test of its system for dealing with excess heat built up by its drive system. The test goes wrong, but there’s no drama in this. The chief engineer explains calmly that this kind of thing happens, it’s why you test first, and it’s just a problem to be solved (and it is). This is a great attitude to have in the real world, but it sucks when it comes to fiction. If every problem gets solved without much consequence, why should I care about them? Same goes for the mysterious failure of half the drive system once they’re underway, which doesn’t matter because the ship already has enough momentum to get to Saturn before the Chinese.

Even when stuff happens to people there isn’t really much to it. The engineer? She dies mid trip due to another accident, just after she and Sandy have started sleeping together. Thanks to spiffy drugs and just the way this book is written this basically has no impact on anybody. It doesn’t even impact the ship in general, as her second chair engineer steps up and does a fine job. That kind of sums up this book in a nutshell to me – if a main character dies and nobody in the book cares, why should I? And don’t even get me started about the cat.

Things improve once the Chinese arrive on the scene, but not enough. For one thing, all of a sudden we begin to get POV scenes from the Chinese involving character’s we’ve never met through the rest of the book. I should care about them why? Kept at a distance they could have been vague bad guys with shady motivations, but we get enough into their heads to know what’s going on without any emotional investment to go along with it. The book builds some goodwill toward the end as it powers to a fairly cynical conclusion, but it weaves at the last moment and destroys that, too.

It’s entirely possible that I’m not the target audience for Saturn Run. It’s hard science fiction in the most literal sense – the space travel and what happens at Saturn are based on extrapolations from known science and are pretty realistic. There are no warp drives or teleporters here. In fact, there’s a half-hour afterword on the audiobook version diving deeply into the science involved. That I skipped it indicates that this book was never for me in the first place.

But there’s no reason why hard sci-fi, focused on known science and clever, plausible problem solving, can’t also be compelling drama. If you only care about the engineering challenges and how they’re met, this is the book for you. If you want characters that matter to you going through situations that have consequences that matter, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

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The Second Book Problem

The old saw goes that, with notable exceptions, sequels never live up to their predecessors. This is a particular issue when it comes to trilogies, as the middle installment often suffers from what some writers and critics call the “second book problem.” What is this, exactly? I think it breaks down into two separate issues.

The first issue is peculiar to speculative fiction, although I could see it coming up in other areas. That is the simple fact that the first volume of a sci-fi or fantasy trilogy is going to have to do some heavy lifting on world building – Is the story set in our world or a completely different one? Are we playing by the physical rules we know (with certain extrapolations) or is scientific accuracy out the window? Are the characters human or not? All of that can (probably should) produce a sense of wonder and awe in the reader as the world unfolds. The initial introduction to Westeros or the Culture or post-apocalyptic Canada should leave the reader a little bit shocked.

That’s gone by the time the second book rolls around. Certainly, a writer should deepen and make more interesting the world in which their story is being told in a second volume, but it’s difficult to capture the initial “wow” factor a second time around. Kings that once ruled the world on the backs of flying, fire-breathing dragons? Awesome shit! The genealogy of those kings, as important as that may be? Not so much.

The second issue is that, just like the middle point of any story, the second part of a trilogy can have a plot that seems to drag a bit. The initial flush of excites as the plot unwinds in the first volume is gone, but the satisfying conclusion of the entire tale in the final volume is still a ways off. At best there’s a lot of clever table setting and some interesting side plots; at worst, there’s a lot of wheel spinning.

“Wait a sec,” you might be thinking, “didn’t you write a trilogy? Aren’t you writing another one? Do you think you’ve solved the second book problem, smart guy?”

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Probably not, but that’s ultimately a question for readers to answer. I tried to make The Endless Hills work as a middle volume by broadening the number of characters to provide a wider view of the conflict that flamed to life in The Water Road. I hope that helped with the second issue, but I’m not so certain about the first.

What seems true, however, is that even really excellent writers still fall victim to the second book problem. The hottest writer in fantasy right now is N.K. Jemisin, whose brilliant The Fifth Season I noted a couple of months back. The third book of that trilogy, The Stone Sky (which I’m now deep in the middle of), just won a Hugo, making Jemisin the first writer to win the award three years (and three books) in a row. Still and all, The Obelisk Gate, the second book in the trilogy, can’t help but sag a bit. The world, which gets a lot of depth and shading, isn’t “holy shit!” anymore and one character’s story falls into the “table setting” genre pretty well. It’s still amazingly good (did I mention three Hugos in a row?), but it shows that even someone as talented as Jemisin isn’t immune from second book syndrome.

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So what makes the exceptions to the rule stand out? Maybe it’s because the next installment was a step down or maybe there’s enough new and different in the second installment to keep the freshness alive. Or, maybe, when a trilogy or series is all said and done we tend to brush over the criticisms of the middle parts the way we kind of brush over the middle parts themselves. It may be inherent to the trilogy format itself. I’m not sure, which is kind of a problem for a writer. Like most things, keeping the issue in mind and trying to deal with it is probably the best course, and keeping in mind that it bedevils just about everyone.

Other Great Lawyer Movies

Several years ago, the American Bar Association Journal put together a list of the “best lawyer movies.” They’ve recently updated it, to their credit (there’s nothing quite so sad as an out of date “best of” list), and it’s full of great movies – Primal Fear, A Few Good Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.. I come not to scorn that list, but to supplement it, with five of my favorite overlooked lawyer movies.

A word on what “lawyer movie” means (to me, at least). It’s a movie where a lawyer is a main, if not the main, character and where the practice of law is important to the plot. It doesn’t have to revolve around a courtroom (although that helps) and, taking a cue from the ABA’s inclusion of A Man for All Seasons, isn’t limited to American lawyers. So, with that said, off we go.

Breaker Morant (1980)

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Breaker Morant gets bonus points for not only being a great lawyer movie, but a great war movie, too. Set during the Boer War of 1899-1902, it’s the story of three Australian soldiers (although the titular Breaker is of English extraction) put on trial for murder of enemy prisoners and a German missionary. They’re attorney, another Australian, has only every handled land conveyancing before. It is, ironically, a real kangaroo court, with the soldiers being scarified more for the sake of international PR than justice.

That’s because, the movie asks, what is justice in a war where there are no rules? It’s from the Boers that we get the word “commando.” By the time the movie is set they’re fighting a rearguard irregular action that eschewed pitched battles, uniforms and the like. The by-the-book military law ways of dealing with prisoners didn’t really fit with that kind of war. But is the British Empire more interested in enforcing the rule of law or using the Australians as scapegoats? The irony is the murder of the German missionary, of which we knew they are completely guilty, is the one count on which they’re acquitted.

It also contains what might be my favorite last line in all of cinema:

 

 

A Soldier’s Story (1984)

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Another one that doubles as a great war movie as well as lawyer movie. Only this time the war is World War II and it’s nowhere near the events of the film itself. Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, it’s the story of an African-American army officer sent to a Mississippi base to investigate the death of an African-American drill sergeant.

Through the investigation we learn about the sergeant’s unit, a group of African-Americans desperate to do their part to defeat Hitler, but who have been reduced to a semi-barnstorming baseball team (they might get to play the Yankees). There’s an exploration of racism (the fact that the investigating officer is black is just too much for some folks) and abuse of power that spirals into a genuinely satisfying twist. Plus, there’s a hell of a cast, led by Harold Rollins and Adolph Caesar, but also including Robert Townsend, David Allen Grier, and a young Denzel Washington.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

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You don’t want to quit me, I’m your dream client: I’m the most fun, I’m rich, and I’m always in trouble.

Every lawyer has difficult clients, something that the movies aren’t always good at putting up on screen (to see a great portrayal of what it’s like to work with a fraud client watch Shattered Glass). Sadly, most of our difficult clients aren’t as fun or rich as Larry Flynt, though some of them are in trouble even more often than “always.”

The People . . . (directed by the late great Milos Foreman) is a bio-pick, but it spends a lot of time in court, culminating with the most realistic depiction of a Supreme Court argument I’ve ever seen on screen. It’s the culmination of Flynt’s fight against (the late and decidedly not great) Jerry Falwell, who sued Flynt and Hustler over a parody ad that implied Falwell had sex with his mother. For that alone, it makes the list.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

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Every other movie on my list (and many on the ABA list) has great courtroom scenes. The Sweet Hereafter never gets anywhere near a courtroom, yet it still provides one of the best portraits of what it means to be a lawyer I’ve ever seen.

Mitchell Stephens (played by Ian Holm) is a big city lawyer with a drug-addicted daughter trying to build a case in a small, isolated Canadian town. A school bus has crashed through the ice, killing many of the town’s children and leaving deep scars on just about everyone. Stephens trudges from home to home, trying to sign up plaintiffs for a suit against the bus manufacturer and the school district. Thus, Stephens is literally an ambulance chaser, yet it’s clear he does believe in the righteousness of what he’s doing. He’s not just chasing a payday (though there is that). The melancholy of it all, being absorbed by the traumas of others, comes through in every scene with him. No other movie I’ve seen gets that aspect of what it means to be a lawyer.

Naturally, it all falls apart at the end (thanks to a surviving child, played by Sarah Polley, who’s gone on to direct some great films), which makes it the rare lawyer movie where the lawyer loses. Again, that’s a hard truth for most lawyers (most of my fellow criminal defense lawyers, at least).

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

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One of the reasons I like to talk about “favorites” instead of “best” is that movies (and all art) strikes different people in different ways and sometimes you love something even if it isn’t a critical darling. I don’t think anybody would call Intolerable Cruelty one of the Cohen Brothers’ best movies, but it is undoubtedly one of my favorites.

That’s largely down to the fact that for the first year of my legal life I was a divorce lawyer. Working for legal aid as the domestic violence specialist I split my time between working with abuse victims to get protective orders and getting them out of marriages. The people I was working with didn’t have enough property (and, thankfully, not many had kids) to fight about most time, much less enough to worry about something like the famous prenup that bears the name of Myles Massey (played with all his old-school movie star charm by George Clooney), but the beats and rhythms of what divorces cases are like are the same regardless of what’s involved. Maybe it’s millions of dollars; maybe it’s the commemorative Smurf glasses from Arby’s. I recognized that on the screen.

Plus, there’s an easy screwball feel to the whole thing (Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the woman who cooks up the scheme to bring Massey to heal, is great, too), with just enough bizarre touches (Massey’s wheezing senior partner, the Baron, etc.), that it’s just fun. Which is something you shouldn’t be able to say about a movie with a divorce lawyer as the main character!