Cover image of "Ghosts," a novel about First Contact with aliens

Beware: the title is misleading. Peter Cawdron’s novel, Ghosts, is not a ghost story. It’s hard science fiction, the 24th in his series of standalone novels exploring the innumerable ways that First Contact with aliens might play out. He’s written about what seems like every conceivable possibility—but there’s still more. And Ghosts delivers it. Here, Cawdron focuses more tightly than ever on the wildly contrasting ways that people on Earth receive the news of First Contact. After all, in an age dominated by competing world powers, partisan and religious differences, and nonstop conspiracy theories, we could hardly expect people to react in the same way. And those differences make for a tense, suspenseful story.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

An alien spaceship is hurtling toward the sun

The story opens as astronomers around the world detect a Bright Data Object (BDO) moving swiftly toward the sun from somewhere outside the solar system. They’re reluctant to call it what it is. But the powers that be in the world’s leading nations are perfectly aware that it’s an alien spaceship. And as news about the ship’s arrival begins trickling out, the US President startles the UN General Assembly by sharing details and calling for an international mission to meet the alien vessel. All of the planet’s spacefaring nations agree to participate. But Russian nationalists force their government to send their own secret mission as well. And thus two human ships head out to meet what the media unaccountably still calls “the BDO” in orbit around the sun.

Ghosts (First Contact #24) by Peter Cawdron (2023) 356 pages ★★★★☆

Diagram of the five Lagrange Points, one of which is the locus of the action in this novel about First Contact with aliens
A diagram of the five Lagrange Points, where the gravitational pull of the Sun and that of the Earth precisely balance each other. Most of the action in Ghosts takes place at L4, where the alien starship has come to rest. Image: NASA

First Contact with aliens will be . . . complicated

One exchange on television news illustrates just how astonishing it is that the President has managed to persuade so many nations to participate in the mission. One member of a panel interviewed on the news says about the rumors circulating after the President’s UN address:

“‘We need to stick to the facts.’

“’But we won’t,’ the anchor says, preempting the reply from his guest.

“The elderly man opposite him says, ‘No, we won’t. We’ll take one extraordinary fact and we’ll weave dozens, perhaps hundreds of unfounded scenarios from it. We’ll embellish. We’ll guess. We’ll exaggerate. We’ll react. We’ll be defensive. We’ll give in to our fears. And we’ll be convinced our particular take is right—if only everyone else would listen to us. We’ll fabricate our own reality. It’s what we do best.’”

And that exchange succinctly sums up the turmoil that the ship’s arrival has caused among the people of Earth.

Photo of NASA astronauts in a spacecraft like those in this novel
Astronauts in a SpaceX capsule on a NASA mission. Image: SpaceX – NASA

A suspenseful story with plenty of action

We’ve gained an inside look at discussions in the Oval Office through Molly Sorenson, an uncommonly smart 22-year-old White House intern. The Chief of Staff has taken Molly under her wing and includes her in meetings because she’s “invisible” and can serve as a hidden set of eyes and ears. But Molly proves to be more than that. She soon emerges as a voice of reason and morality, freely speaking out of turn in meetings with the nation’s leaders.

Meanwhile, we meet the NASA astronauts who will lead the international mission to intercept the BDO. Chris “Crash” Williams is to be the mission commander, and we view much of the action ahead through his perspective. Also on the mission are astronauts from Britain, China, India, and France. (The Russian has been sent home when the US learns of the independent mission from Russia.) And, as Crash Williams and his crew make their way to First Contact, we also observe Aleksandr Krukov, one of the two cosmonauts on the Russian crew.

Molly Sorenson, Crash Williams, and Aleksandr Krukov will carry the story forward. Through their eyes, we follow the action from one crisis to another, and ultimately to the many surprises that emerge in the novel’s final pages. And we’ll be in suspense all along the way.

The author’s strengths and weaknesses

Ghosts is a great story, and it should be a treat for any fan of hard science fiction. Cawdron is thoroughly grounded in the science underlying his books, and he explains it well. The novel is beautifully plotted, most of the characters are believable, and the ending is full of surprises. But there are weaknesses in his writing. For one thing, he comes across as a frustrated science teacher. Many of the characters spend what seems to me an unnaturally long time explaining how and why things work. The novel is didactic to a fault, and he appends an author’s note at the end of the book furnishing further explanations. The story might have benefited had Cawdron been a little less generous to science-challenged readers and instead used a list of references at the back of the book to sources that explain the background.

To put all this in perspective, I’m not complaining. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I learned a lot from the asides, and more from Cawdron’s author’s note. In fact, I always make a point of reading those sometimes long addenda. They’re fascinating. But some readers may have a problem. Because what I’m trying to convey here is that all the explaining does sometimes slow down the story and detract from the suspension of disbelief every science fiction reader expects from a novel.

About the author

For a photo and biography of author Peter Cawdron, please see Peter Cawdron’s insightful First Contact book series.

All the books in this series are on Peter Cawdron’s insightful First Contact book series. You might also check out The five best First Contact novels.

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