Retrograde starts with 120 people from all over the world living as a science colony on Mars. The four national groups live in separate habitats formed out of underground lava tubes and all four group habitats connect to a large hub full of growing plants and animals. The teams are happy, doing research on Martian conditions, living, joking, playing games, eating and loving when suddenly they learn that over twenty large cities have been destroyed in nuclear attacks. It’s not clear who is fighting whom, or why, and although indications are the US started it, nothing makes sense.
Liz, the US scientist who narrates the novel, urges the national team leaders to not fight, to cooperate, to share the limited resources, to live and not to die. Survival is complicated and challenging because the resupply mission apparently missed Mars and is zooming off into space.
Several of the team get suspicious that the whole story doesn’t make any sense. There is no reason for war on Earth, no reason for the supply ship to go astray, and some see evidence that the supply ship in fact landed quite close by. Liz goes out to one of the outposts to look for the ship, falls and is badly hurt, almost dies. She is rescued and brought back for treatment by the Chinese doctor Jianyu who is her lover.
Some of the facility sections lose oxygen and many die, including Jianyu, although Liz survives. This is one more oddity that makes several team member suspect the culprit is not a person at all, but an AI.
The rest of the novel focuses on how the teams come together to fight off the AI, and with a few snippets about parallel happenings on Earth. Luckily enough people realized the attacks were fishy that the military and political leaders around the globe did not call in massive retaliation strikes. In fact, although millions were killed, many survive even around the destroyed cities.
There are parallels to Andy Weir’s Martian, in that people must survive, must use their wits to figure out and overcome challenges that will otherwise kill them. The difference is Retrograde looks at groups of people, individuals working with a few other individuals, although the challenges are in fact far greater. (The AI could kill off everyone on Mars and go back to Earth and destroy even more.)
Retrograde is about people, but it is not a character novel, it’s more of a story about people facing a very bad situation. It reminds me of some war movies that focus one one person after another, leaving each when they die or go offstage. Dialogue is OK, but in general the characters are just so-so. There wasn’t anyone I want to get to know better.
I mostly enjoyed reading Retrograde. It is always refreshing to find well-written science fiction that has believable people, although the main plot twist was unbelievable. The pacing is uneven and to be blunt, I got a little tired of the story.
So many new authors try to write military science fiction, or novels about small traders, smugglers, folks living on the edge,, and so few do it well. Too often the basic approach is to take a story that could be set on Earth just fine and dump it into outer space and call it science fiction. Sometimes the only way we can tell it’s outer space and meant to be science fiction is that the character will mention their ship or their trips to other star systems. Retrograde is real science fiction; Cawdron takes a semi-plausible scenario, and uses real science as the story backdrop.