Book Title: Retrograde
Author: Peter Cawdron
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Indie Athenaeum Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
The Mars Endeavor colony has been successfully built with great effort, staffed with over one-hundred and twenty scientists, engineers and doctors, the best in their fields of expertise. On a long-term mission, this international group has been hand-selected from the worlds space agencies, sectioned off into four different modules: America, China, Russia, and the Eurasian group. Amid this melting pot of different cultures, they all find common ground to work together for the betterment of their home planet. But then they learn in a garbled transmission that Earth has begun World War III and launched nuclear weapons at each other, plunging the planet into an apocalypse! When the Mars station finds out they no longer have any backup from Earth, how will they respond and even more importantly, how will they survive?
Given that there is a large cast of characters, the author tells the story from the point of view of Liz, an American micro-paleobiologist who has a relationship with Jianyu, a surgeon in the Chinese module. As the news of the war on Earth spreads throughout the entire habitat, conspiracies surface, bringing out mistrust, increasing paranoia and raising old prejudices that once lay dormant.
I liked the way these ideas were explored, as it thoughtfully examines how they view one another through the lens of their personal history and their cultural differences. It unfolded in a way that was believable yet unexpected. As alliances form and proof of their different suspicions arise, the theme of unity as one collective species of humans to solve this immense problem is attempted. In the face of cultural disparity and disharmony, the potential for the entire colony to break down into unresolvable conflict is catastrophic.
I also liked how the suspense comes not just from the situation but from the characters and their history. Liz and Harrison, the second in command, have a past from when they were training together in preparation for this mission and that shades how much or how little she can trust him. Liz is also a fully fleshed out character and not just because the story is seen through her eyes.
Her history with her parents, how she experiences joy, why she cares for Jianyu, her enthusiasm for being in space and on Mars, how she felt during the many physical and psychological tests she faces in her rigorous training – all of this makes for an interesting and intelligent character. As a result, she is as real as your spouse or your best friend, as her struggles become the readers and we feel the fear of dying, the terror of an uncommon foe and the bliss of working on an alien planet as if her feelings were directly connected to our own.
There is a jaw-dropping development here that completely caught me by surprise and left my mouth agape at its audacity and power. The entire novel twists on this pivot point from here on in and in lesser hands, the novel could have sunk into mundane, by-the-numbers storytelling. It could’ve degenerated into a bland survival story that is completely predictable too. But instead of doing those things, here is where the author uses this twist to raise this novel to the next level. He ratchets up the intensity, raises the stakes and has its characters use science and intelligence to solve these problems now facing the entire habitat. He then mixes it all together to lead into its endgame that is heartfelt, disturbing and ultimately rousing conclusion.
The science here is a character all of its own, as it sets the stage, provides the background and is seamlessly infused into the story. Its comprehensiveness immersed me deeply into the habitat and the planet Mars, making me think that I am truly there. From the description of Mars’s history, what the rock formations are like, the different layers of planetary strata, the atmosphere, and even the cave formations, this Mars is not one made out of the imagination but of much research into all our data we as a planet have found out to date.
We can feel the crunch of the regolith beneath our boots as we walk on Mars’ surface. And if there is a leak in our spacesuit as we walk on Mars, we not only feel frightened by the possibility but we clearly understand why we should be frightened. Through the science of Mars’ atmosphere, how the lack of oxygen impacts the brain and how the suits multiple failsafes might work, we gain an intimate portrait of all those details and it only adds spectacular detail to an already enthralling situation to make it all that much more real to the reader. The novel never shies away from discussing how dangerous living on Mars is and the many challenges that must be overcome just to live there.
The science of Mars is not the only thing that’s impressive about this novel. The creation of a habitat under the surface in a volcano tube is wonderfully constructed as well, not just in my imagination but with scientific precision. Since this novel takes place in the near future, the different theories and ideas on how Mars could be inhabited by humanity and maintain a sustained existence on the planet are authentic and truly fascinating.
Everything described in this novel is extrapolated from existing and known technology to make for a well-detailed and future made real. From the common hub area where all of their crops are grown to the robotic vehicles, this habitat was keenly described in my mind’s eye so that even if you don’t know the science, you will become familiar with it throughout the novel. It is easy to understand and perfectly explained but not in a way that slows the novel down but instead gives it additional depth.
Even the specialties each crew member has, from surgeon to engineer, from biologist to agriculture and robotics, each profession is expertly detailed in their knowledge. I feel like the author must have been an expert in these different professions in the way he describes them and their function in the story. The research and the writing of each of these characters here feel so authentic because of the accuracy he uses to discuss each one.
I’ve read many stories by this author that feature strong characterization and believable science and they are always delightful reads. This novel could make for one epic movie if it were ever brought to a movie screen. It has the intrigue of Mars, multicultural characters who are people and not just a stereotype plus a gripping plot that moves swiftly without letting you take a breath. This fusion of suspenseful storytelling grounded in scientific reality is among the best I’ve read by him to date.
Frankly, I think NASA needs to hire the author and keep him on retainer for his scientific prowess, boundless imagination and for successfully capturing that sense of wonder for Mars in his storytelling. It’s the most pleasurable trip to Mars you will ever take without having to leave the comfort of your couch. Hard sci-fi has a new champion and his name is Peter Cawdron.
If you enjoyed this novel, I would also recommend that you read the sequel: “Reentry.” The Indie Athenaeum review for that novel can be found here.
If you found this review to be helpful to you, please click here to go to the review on Amazon. Then navigate to the bottom of this review and click on the “helpful” button.
Previous Indie Athenaeum book reviews about stories by Peter Cawdron include “Hello World – An Anthology of Short Stories” and “Chronicle Worlds: Legacy Fleet – An Anthology of Speculative Fiction – Future Chronicles, Book 20“.