Mission to Methone by Les Johnson (SF novel, February 2018).
A lot of near-future space-centered fiction is focused on the prospect of asteroid mining–or at least, as in this case, that theme is used a springboard into the plot. In 2065, Chris Holt is a (so-far) Earthbound scientist using robotic probes to survey various space rocks for mining. He’s as shocked as anybody when one asteroid turns out to be an apparently derelict alien spaceship.
Soon various world powers are scrambling to explore the wreck and learn about the alien civilization that sent it to our solar system. The company Holt worked for gets squeezed out, but he’s dubbed the US government’s official expert on the thing. Accordingly, he’s tasked with accompanying an international crew of US, European and Japanese astronauts who are sent there. The Chinese also send a ship; India intends to follow suit. On top of all that, a new power, a self-described Caliphate (think: the Islamic State reborn and now armed with warheads from Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal) launches a missile intended to destroy the ancient ship. Apparently the whole idea of an alien spaceship offends the sensibilities of the hypocritical fanatics running much of the Middle East.
But the international rivalries still simmering on Earth pale next to the sprawling interstellar conflict that derelict warship was part of. Two alien civilizations have been fighting for countless centuries. One is determined to destroy any emerging alien species that might someday be capable of interstellar flight (no potential competitors allowed), while its enemy strives to protect such emerging cultures. Both sent robot warships to Sol, shortly before humans learned agriculture. The nearly crippled vessel Holt and company encounter is one survivor of that long-ago space battle.
Holt’s crew and the Chinese become somewhat uneasy partners in contacting the alien ship’s still-partly functional AI unit and try to stop the Caliphate’s missile. The latter attempt fails, but impresses the AI unit enough that it tells them about another damaged outpost–and gives the explorers plans for a new engine that will allow humans to reach it in far less time than extant Earth tech would make possible.
Methone, one of the most unusual moons of Saturn, is in reality another, even larger alien artifact in disguise. Again, a tense team effort unites the continuing first contact effort. While the Caliphate lacks the tech to send even a missile that far out, they’ve decided on another way to foul everything up–a terror-fueled effort to trick China and its longtime rival India into a world-ending atomic war.
This generates a subplot, the resolution of which I won’t get into.
Meanwhile, Holt and others meet another AI unit that controls Methone and has some disturbing secrets to finally share with him (and eventually the others). Will humanity survive its own self-destructive tendencies and the hostile aliens to travel the stars? You’ll have to read the book for an at-least-partial answer.
One of the back-cover blurbs of the mass-market paperback edition I read (released in March 2019) refers to this as an “old-fashioned first contact novel” and that’s mostly true, as well as in positive terms and not so positive ones.
Holt is, alas, a near-cliche version of the techno-nerd who is a lot more at home dealing with machines than his fellow humans. He does evolve somewhat in the course of things (even falls in love, much against his will). But still, this strikes me as a worn-out trope.
I also found the whole Caliphate/fanatic Muslim bit rather too pat. There’s no denying that extremists (Islamic and otherwise) will still be major troublemakers several decades down the road. Inherent contradictions between these one-dimensional luddites’ goals and the technologies they must employ notwithstanding, they’re strictly stock bad guys. I’m left with many unanswered questions. Is Iran an unnamed part of the Caliphate, and if so, how has the deep split between Shia and Sunni Muslims been resolved? If Iran isn’t party to this, why no mention of them as a likely opposing force? Not to mention other major Muslim states like Egypt and Indonesia?
I also found the cavalier why Johnson dismisses another troublesome nuke-armed state (North Korea) unconvincing. The future international politics do serve the plot for the most part, I just don’t entirely buy it.
The final result is an entirely serviceable adventure. Good, if not completely satisfying.