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Book Review: Retrograde By Peter Cawdron
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Retrograde
Hardcover | Kindle | Audiobook
By Peter Cawdron
Publisher: HMH Books | John Joseph Adams
Release date: September 12, 2017

The first colony has been established on Mars. Christened Endeavour, the underground community consists of four modules, each with a team of scientists and support staff from the United States, China, Russia, and Eurasia, respectively. The human colonists had been trained to handle living in confined spaces, in isolation, and with limited means in the most inhospitable environments. Every possible scenario the team could face — even the possibility of their own deaths — has been explored and prepared for, except, that is, what to do in the event of a nuclear war on Earth, which is exactly what happens in Peter Cawdron‘s Retrograde.

This hard science fiction tale first introduces us to this international crew, who has been living relatively harmoniously together on Mars as they focus on their scientific work, as well as spend time socializing. The book opens on a friendly late-night card game inside the Chinese module, where U.S. micropaleobiologist Liz is with her boyfriend Jianyu, a surgeon with the Chinese crew. The game is abruptly interrupted by the Chinese commander, who, without explanation, demands that the Americans leave, shouting in her native language a word that Liz thinks means “warmonger.” Liz is thoroughly confused by what’s happening, and is upset to be separated from her love, but soon after, the U.S. crew discovers that global nuclear war has broken out on Earth, and major cities have been wiped out. A message from their mission commander at NASA does little to console them; matter of fact, it leads them to believe that their Earth counterparts have abandoned them on the red planet. Plus, there’s still no news regarding who actually started the war.

Distrust, paranoia, suspicion, secrecy, and segregation amongst the modules begins to grow as the crews lose contact with their respective countries and start to fill in the missing pieces of what happened back on Earth. It took a lot of international cooperation to build the Martian colony, but now that they’ve been cut off from their home world, Cold War-era prejudices are surfacing. The story is told through Liz’s perspective, and she feels that the war on Earth shouldn’t extend to Endeavour, as the Martian colonists need each other now more than ever if they’re going to survive the fallout. Also, as if the situation on Mars wasn’t dire enough, it appears that sabotage is also at play.

In the book’s Author’s Note, Cawdron says he wanted to show what life on a colony on Mars would be like now that Andy Weir’s bestselling novel The Martian created some renewed interest in the fourth planet from the Sun. But unlike Weir’s tale, which presented a lone, abandoned astronaut’s struggle for survival, Retrograde expands the concept to show us the group dynamics of people who are left to fend for themselves. They not only must put aside longstanding international grievances and suspicions in order to survive in their new home, but they must also figure out who the real enemy is. Cawdron also seems to have painstaking given us realistic depictions of a future Martian life, whereas Weir admittedly not only got some of the science incorrect, but also took some artistic liberties.

While Retrograde starts on the brink of the apocalypse, about halfway through it turns more into a space mystery as the crew puts more and more pieces of the puzzle together. I must confess that the story did take a twist that I did not expect, and the last 100 pages or so go into a new direction, which I will refrain from discussing here so as not to spoil anything. There’s a lot of hard science described throughout, which you don’t have to fully understand to be able to follow the story. But at a certain point, I realized that the author wasn’t just throwing out information for the hell of it; some of these details were useful to know for when other events started happening. The book is around 250 pages, and the facts are interwoven into Liz’s narrative, not bogging down the story, so once you get the lay of the land, you can read through Retrograde quickly and most enjoyably.

The international team at the Mars Endeavour colony is prepared for every eventuality except one—what happens when disaster strikes Earth?

Mankind has long dreamed of reaching out to live on other planets, and with the establishment of the Mars Endeavour colony, that dream has become reality. The fledgling colony consists of 120 scientists, astronauts, medical staff, and engineers. Buried deep underground, they’re protected from the harsh radiation that sterilizes the surface of the planet. The colony is prepared for every eventuality except one—what happens when disaster strikes Earth?

Retrograde book cover Peter Cawdron

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