The Big Idea: Ctein


What do you do when you have a great idea for a story, but it’s an idea that a little outside your usual remit as a writer? In the case of John Sandford and Ctein and their new novel Saturn Run, you take a tip from the Beatles: You get by with a little help from your friends.


Once upon a time…

… because all good stories begin that way …

John Sandford, a best-selling cop-thriller novelist, had an Idea for a mainstream science fiction novel (he’s an SF fan, but had never written any). Actually, he had two ideas, and one of them was nuts.

The first — What would happen if a starship entered the solar system and proceeded to entirely ignore us. Not, in and of itself a new idea; see Rendezvous with Rama. An unknown starship could be an incalculable threat or boon. We don’t know which, but we know how the story plays out: Humanity will unite in what is undeniably a common cause, as it has so many times in the past, and set out to investigate…

… Wait a minute. Rewind. Is this us we’re talking about? Because, y’know, history might suggest we’re not so good at this unification thing.

Right. There’d be a mad scramble, with every side trying to figure out how to gain advantage, because it would be really, really important that the Good Guys benefit from this and not the Bad Guys, a.k.a. Us vs. Them. It’d be a new space race––get to the aliens first (are there even aliens???), assess the threat, grab what goods are to be got, and make sure the Bad Guys don’t get any.

There are catches. The clock’s ticking down, so no leisurely decade-long mission plan. Design and construction have to be hurried. The ship needs to get to Saturn in less than half a year. Oh yeah, and this has to be done in secret.

The whole mission comes off on budget, on schedule, on point, and all goes well. Because, y’know, that’s just the kind of story that makes for a good thriller.

Suuure (insert maniacal authorial laughter here).

That Big Idea led to a Big Problem. How the hell do you get a ship to Saturn in under six months, not to mention building it in under two years? No “wantum mechanics” (Greg Benford’s wonderful term for totally-made-up science shit); it’s not much of a hard bolts-and-rivets thriller if people know you’re faking it. It wasn’t an unsolvable problem. John could research it. In his former life he was a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and has written forty or so thrillers, so he knows research. It’d just take several years of his life to get himself fully up to speed, that’s all.

The hitch was, John’s steady gig is turning out two novels (plus change) each year like clockwork. His readers expect it. He can’t take off a couple of years to explore himself as an author. This led to John’s second Big Idea, the crazy one.

Why not write it jointly with his friend, me? We’re both professional authors, who’ve made good multi-decadal careers out of generating words for money. We’re both disciplined and know how to meet deadlines. I already knows a whole lot about science fiction, and those Physics/English degrees oughta be good for something. John figures I’ll be able to solve the Big Problem(s).

Except for one little detail, which made it a crazy idea. I’m strictly nonfiction. Never written fiction, never wanted to. We’ve discussed this. Still, nothing ventured. John rings up Ctein:

John: I have a proposition. Hear me out before you say no. That science fiction novel? It’s not happening. You should write it.

Ctein: I don’t do fiction. It’s way too much like work.

John: Yeah, yeah. Look, just think about it. I’ll send you what I’ve got so far. It’s not much. There’s no pressure; take as long as you like. It’s not going anywhere for me. If you want to try your hand at it, you’ll be pretty much writing the whole first draft on your own.

Ctein: You’re not making this sounding more attractive.

John: I’ll help when you need it. I’ll do the first rewrite, we’ll both polish it up, my agent will sell it, and we’ll split the money.

Ctein: Money’s OK. Working for it, not so much. ‘Sides, I’ve heard it’s the root of all evil. Well, some of it, anyway.

John: Lotsa money.

Ctein: All right… I’ll probably say no. Actually, I’m pretty certain I’ll say no.

John: Whatever. First thing is, we need a spaceship and we need one that can get built fast. I figure our future US will have a pretty decent space station…

Ctein: That won’t work. I don’t think there’s any good way to turn a space station into a spaceship.

John: You’ll figure something out.

End of phone call. I read over the files and went to bed. The next morning I thought, “Waitaminit, I know how to turn a space station into a spaceship.”

I was probably doomed at that point, but it took me months to come to terms with that.

Six months later, I had done everything a skilled and experienced professional non-fiction author could possibly do. The office was a hell of a lot cleaner. Heaping stacks of papers had been properly sorted and filed. Even the computer desktop was reorganized. It was either tell John to forget it, go after the bathroom tile with a toothbrush, because, damn, that grout was dirty…or start writing.

I opted for door number three.

Four days later I sent John a rewrite of his original first chapter plus a brand-new chapter of my own. One nail-biting day later, there was a short e-mail from John: “This is okay. We can work with this.”

From that halting beginning, we went on to write the saga of the great race between the United States Spaceship “Richard M. Nixon” and the Chinese “Celestial Odyssey.”

The funny thing is, John’s nutso Big Idea actually worked. It really is both of us in the book. We each wrote about two-thirds of what’s in the final version (large chunks got rewritten so many times by both of us that it would take a forensic librarian to figure out who wrote what).

And that, kids, is how some books get born.

P.S. Oh, yeah, really — the USS Richard M. Nixon.

Because? Bwahahahaha…


Saturn Run: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit John Sandford’s site. Visit Ctein’s site.

40 Comments on “The Big Idea: Ctein”

  1. Because only Nixon could go to Saturn?

    It’s really cool to see a regular Whateverian in the Big Ideas. And I do so love a good first contact story! Have to add it to my Amazon list.

  2. Interesting!! Two authors playing to each others’ strengths.
    As a photographer, Ctein is a legend!! Wonderful that he can stretch out like this.

  3. You see what happens. I’ve been studiously avoiding Big Ideas so that my “to-read” list could remain in the “imaginarily** reasonable” range. And then Ctein is involved in a project.

    And the list gets one book longer. Interesting pitch.

    And Nixon deserves to have a ship named after him at this point…..


    **totally a word. Who says it isn’t?

  4. First off, I was just bemoaning the lack of new space exploration sci-fi stories to one of my brother’s the other day. So now I have to shut up because, space exploration. Yay! Secondly, the title of forensic librarian may be the best one ever – bonus: the Forensic Librarians would be a great band name.

  5. The wit displayed by Ctein here is enough to get me interested in this book. Definitely Scalzi-quality humor. “Forensic Librarian”, ROFLMAO!

  6. Really made me laugh, because I paused my reading to tell my husband about the “Richard M. Nixon” spaceship. Then I got to the post script. Bwahahaha indeed…

  7. My copy is in transit from one library branch to another. John’s books are a must read for me (just like mine host) and the addition of aliens??? and spaceships is a bonus. Long (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend coming up and a great read to look forward to.

  8. Good job. I started reading with no interest what so ever in buying this book to I am definitely going to buy this.

  9. .. and thanks to Ctein for the great Big Idea piece and your share of the Saturn Run pie..

  10. I’m a quarter of the way through Saturn Run, stopped reading The Big Idea because of spoiler fears, and it’s already clear this is a collaboration. The science is hard, technical, and plausible (ctein I assume). The characters are engrossing and plausible (Sanford I assume). The plot moves along engagingly. I’m enjoying, but have to stop at night so I can sleep.

  11. Thanks ctein; now I’ve shot my book budget for October. OTOH, ctein (a regular here) and Sandford ( the ____ Prey guy!), how cool is that? Can’t wait!

  12. Dear Bob,

    Not to worry, not one single spoiler in the Big Idea. Not even a hint of one. Read and enjoy!

    You’d be surprised what parts I wrote and what parts John wrote. He wrote some science; most of the characters are mine. We were very seamless about it.

    pax / Ctein

  13. This month, I’m in charge of the Popular Reading orders for my library. You bet this was on my order list. I’ll be honest, it’s one of several I ordered just so that I could read them myself, and not the only one to come from the Big Idea list.

  14. Dear Marion,

    It is not without humor, in fact there’s a fair amount, but it is a mainstream thriller. Really bad shit happens. It’s not a romp. Just so’s ya knows.

    pax / Ctein

  15. It sounds like a must-buy, and of course as I am both a Whateverian and someone who repeatedly hugged ctein this past weekend… I have to go push a couple buttons, BRB.

  16. There is, of course, no such thing as a forensic librarian. There is an anti-forensic librarian speciality, but that only comes in useful if we find someone harming a book and we don’t want the cops to trace our activities in discouraging them…

  17. Robin: I’ve always pronounced it k’TINE, and he’s never corrected me, so there’s that.

  18. You know, I’ll go a long way towards suspension of belief in pursuit of a story, but where, pray tell, in anything resembling the United States in the 21st is there advocacy, much less constituency, for a commissioned U.S. ship named after RMN?

    Cripes, to the present day incarnation of the Party of Lincoln, Milhouse would be a left-wing loon…

    So would Lincoln, for that matter … And TR … And Eisenhower.


  19. Dear Lurker,

    And, you may have noticed, I totally did not mind! Not one single bit.

    We have to, like, sit down and have lunch or dinner at one of these, instead of just running past each other waving and hugging. I did the Barcon thing at Convolution this year, but next year. And you should email me your email address so we don’t have to arrange our social life through John’s blog. ‘Cause we’re boring the hell out of everyone else and they’re starting to shout, “Go get a room!”

    Or, worse yet, “Pix Plz!”


    Dear Robin,

    Cally’s right.


    Dear Pineapple,

    OK, first, on the meta level, we named it the Nixon because we thought it was funny.

    When I first asked John to name the ship, ‘cuz I was drawing a blank, he said, “We could call it the George W. Bush,” and I wrote back, “If you’ve got the nerve, I can come up with a rationale for it.”

    He chickened out.

    It would, in fact, have been a bad idea– too current and it would have distracted people from the story.

    So I came back with “Richard M. Nixon.”

    The thing is, there really is a good reason for it in the story, and we make it clear what that is (not saying here, cuz no spoilers, not even little bitty ones). It makes sense and it says some real things about how historical process works (John was a history major) and what gets remembered as important a century after the fact.

    That’s the rationalization so that it makes sense in the story. Which it does.

    But, really, it’s ’cause it gave us giggles.

    pax / Ctein

  20. Dear Folks,

    Uhh, just realized, ‘cuz it’s not obvious unless you’ve read the sample chapters. The book starts out in 2065, half a century from now. It’s not contemporary.

    pax / Ctein

  21. Sounds fun! I’m 57th in the queue for it in the San Diego library system, so you’d appear popular…

  22. I love the thorough refutation of Humanity will unite in what is undeniably a common cause, as it has so many times in the past, and set out to investigate…, pointing out that history might suggest we’re not so good at this unification thing and rather suggesting that there’d be a mad scramble, with every side trying to figure out how to gain advantage, assess the threat, grab what goods are to be got, and make sure the Bad Guys don’t get any.

    This is certainly a much more realistic expectation.

    And that’s one of the reasons I love the wonderful – long forgotten, since being screwed over and ultimately prematurely cancelled by the network – science fiction TV show Threshold so much.

  23. First, I am going to buy this. After posting this.

    Second, I managed to miss that Benford ‘wantum mechanics’ line: fucking brilliant.

    Third, blind guess but I’d guess China had something to do with the Nixon naming.

  24. Nixon because he happened to be in office for Apollo 11, and thus 100 years later got remembered as the Space President?

  25. Ctein, sorry for assuming too much. I liked the call out to Oliver Sacks (An Anthropologist on Mars).

  26. Dear Lorax,

    Nope, and ya gotta read the book to find out. ‘Cause we’re evil.

    pax / Ctein


    Dear Bob,

    It’s a fair concern; at the events John has been a lot freer with minor spoilers than I’d be comfortable with. So, if he’d been writing this, there would’ve been some. Different folks have different tolerances for that. Mine is very small.

    pax / Ctein

  27. sjw75126: I seem to recall that there was a spaceship named for Reagan in William F. Nolan’s comic SF/private eye novel Space for Hire (1971). I can’t locate my copy, although Amazon sells it as an e-book.

  28. Okay, fair enough … Interested in what you do.

    Just seems like the good ship SS Andrew Johnson, but I’m reading.

  29. Dear Pi,

    Well, the most basic reason for the name is that we thought it was funny. But once we decided to make it the name, there had to be a good reason for that in the story and there is.

    On the meta level, you can read it as a comment on how history’s long view can be very different from the short view (which doesn’t mean it is more right, just different). Andrew Johnson is a VERY apt comparison. When I was in public school, Johnson was about as far in the past as Nixon will be in Saturn Run. I think about the very complex politics of post Civil War Washington, vs the 25-word version I got in school. I think a politically-savvy contemporary of Johnson would find school’s summary of his administration to be so incomplete and lacking context as to be effectively wrong.

    But, this is very weighty stuff and while all true doesn’t change the undeniable fact —

    — it was a giggle for us.

    pax / Ctein

  30. Just finished the book. WOW

    Guess this is why there is no Virgil Flowers novel this year.
    More than a fair trade.

  31. Dear Neil,

    Exactly right. John is this insane writing machine– he can write (and edit and proofread and …) five times faster than I can. No exaggeration. But, he turns out two or three novels a year (I think four one year) and there are limits.

    VF will be back. Do not fear.

    And thank you for the huge compliment!

    pax / Ctein

%d bloggers like this: