If you want to understand what life on Mars would really be like, New Zealander-turned-Australian Peter Cawdron‘s excellent novel, Retrograde, is the place to start. Cawdron imagines an international 120-person scientific colony established there half a century or so in the future. The colony consists of four underground modules, one each staffed by NASA, and the Chinese, Russian, and “Eurasian” space agencies. (The Eurasian complement is dominated by Europeans, Indians, and Japanese.) Cawdron paints a credible picture of the technology and of the massive challenges involved in surviving the planet’s inhospitable environment. But he is equally adroit in portraying the person-to-person and cross-border conflicts that develop when things begin spinning out of control in the colony.
Retrograde (Retrograde #1) by Peter Cawdron (2017) 259 pages ★★★★★
An accurate picture of what life on Mars would really be like
Elizabeth (Liz) Anderson, an American, tells the tale. She is a micropaleobiologist engaged in search of ancient life on Mars. She’s become involved with the mission’s senior surgeon, Jianyu (Jai), who is Chinese. So, when nuclear war erupts on Earth nine months after the colony is established, it’s natural for Liz to make contact with the Chinese module in defiance of orders from the American commander. Hostilities have threatened to break out in the colony along national lines, and Liz hopes to prevent violence.
A Big Picture perspective on Earth from Mars
Cawdron imbues Liz with his obviously personal perspective on human affairs: “On Earth, astronauts like me have often lamented the lack of perspective political leaders have as they stare at lines on a map. We’ve wished our leaders could orbit the planet and see how fragile and small, and yet astonishingly important, Earth is. Instead of fighting over rocks in the desert or the ancient writings of some revered nomad, they need to appreciate the long picture—13.8 billion years in the making. Even within our own solar system, we and everything we see on our planet are nothing more than a rounding error in the construction of the Sun. We’re the shaving of marble that falls from a proud statue.” To this, I can only say, hear, hear! And, just for the record, when the solar system was created out of swirling dust, all but two-tenths of one percent of that dust went to make up the Sun. All of us together are, indeed, a rounding error.
For further reading
I’ve included Peter Cawdron on my list of Six new science fiction authors worth reading now.
Previously I’ve reviewed three other excellent hard science fiction novels about Mars:
- The Martian by Andy Weir (Hard science fiction at its best);
- The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut #1) by Mary Robinette Kowal (This novel shows just how good hard science fiction can be); and
- The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal (An astonishingly good science fiction novel about the first manned mission to Mars).
You’ll find this book on my list of The decade’s top 10 historical novels, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction.
I’ve also reviewed two good nonfiction books about establishing a colony on Mars: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance (Elon Musk wants to build a colony on Mars (for real)) and Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey (A colony on Mars? Really? An astronomy professor thinks so.).
I’ve also reviewed an outstanding standalone novel by Peter Cawdron, 3zekiel (First Contact)—A thoughtful treatment of First Contact in this new sci-fi novel.
For more good reading, check out Good books about space travel, including both nonfiction and fiction, and:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus dozens of runners-up);
- Two dozen good books about artificial intelligence reviewed here; and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.