Theater, war reenactments, Star Trek conventions, cosplay, video games, and several other aspects of society—new and old—feature adults consciously participating in a reality with an entirely different context than the accepted version: an imaginary reality. Taking the idea and running with it, Poul Anderson’s 1981 novella The Saturn Game asks readers to not only suspend their reality to participate in the story, but to try to understand the realities the characters themselves are participating in. The story perhaps capable of being improved in the hands of another writer, Anderson nevertheless tells a tale with a conclusion relevant to humanity on our side of the looking glass.
Opening on a bizarrely mythic note wherein characters speak to one another of epic matters in archaic English, the story quickly settles in to describe a group of explorers arriving at Saturn’s moon, Iapetus. The five member crew, having spent the preceding months in transit, prepare to land and explore the iced-over rock which floats against the backdrop of the massive ringed planet. The crew who land on the surface are participating in a game in which they agree to improvise upon unfolds in reality. The only one who is not playing stays behind to watch over the lander while the remainder head off to explore the icy crags. A small catastrophe occurring after the explorers mount an ice ridge, it quickly proves potentially deadly. Their game interfering with the rescue, whether or not they will get back to the lander safely becomes a matter of reality.
The basic story of The Saturn Game is, in fact, quite simple: a planetary rescue. Anderson adds depth by interweaving story segments from the characters’ imagined perspectives on reality. Filled with archaic syntax and starring characterizations mythic in stature and tone, these segments appear and reappear like a sine curve. Coinciding with the end of the story, the truth they come to is the heart of the story. Not wanting to spoil matters, I will simply say that what seems odd, does converge to give the preceding juxtaposed pieces of text harmony and meaning.
The only real complaint about the novella is one which, unfortunately, results from comparison. Having read Kim Stanley Robinson’ Mars trilogy, The Saturn Game’s science of planetary exploration, geology, and climatology feel half-baked—lacking in authenticity as it were. I do not know enough of the sciences to say for certain whether Anderson knew what he was talking about or if he was simply appropriating the lingo for story purposes, but regardless, a simplicity exists which hurts rather than helps the story. Or, from another perspective, Robinson has spoiled it for everyone.
In the end, The Saturn Game is an interesting piece of science fiction for its play and examination of realities we know are not real yet willingly to participate in to create a perceived reality. No better setting to elucidate this difference than the mortal danger of being the first group of intelligent astronauts to explore a planetary moon, the resulting story is the only one that could be told under the circumstances. Anderson well known for his love of myth, fantasy and science fiction, it seems increasingly appropriate that such a story come from his fingertips. The characters may be slightly wooden in profile, but their sentiments and conclusions take one more than one dimension.