As someone who lives 2,800 miles away from his elderly mother, I know what it’s like when something bad happens and you’re too far away to help. But I can’t even imagine what it would be like if my mom were 50,000,000 miles away because I was on Mars and she was still here on Earth. Such is the premise of Peter Cawdron’s new sci-fi novel Retrograde (hardcover, digital)…well, except that it’s not about my mama.
Let’s start with the basics. What is Retrograde about?
Retrograde is about the challenge of surviving on Mars when disaster strikes Earth.
Hollywood often portrays colonists and explorers as naive. They’ll land on a planet and walk out without a helmet on because the air is “breathable,” only to become infected with something hideous that mutates and kills the crew. In real life, the astronauts, engineers, doctors, and scientists we send to other planets will be intelligent and savvy, having been trained for every eventuality. Retrograde asks the question: What happens in a multinational colony living beneath Mars when disaster strikes on Earth? It’s the one eventuality no one could prepare for. How would you cope if you’d travelled halfway across the solar system, only to learn your family had died in a nuclear war back on Earth?
I wanted to convey a scientifically accurate view of the challenges humanity will face living on Mars. Tension would be inevitable as colonists live in confined quarters, enduring an environment considerably harsher than anything found on Earth. With the prospect of their supply line being cut off, the colonists are forced to double-down on resources and work together to survive.
Where did you get the idea for Retrograde, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
Books like Andy Weir’s The Martian have shown us what it would be like to be stranded on Mars, but that mission was originally supposed to be a short-duration visit, whereas I was interested in how a permanent but fledgling colony would cope with the isolation of being fifty million miles away from loved ones during a crisis. The novel stays true to that premise, exploring the tension from the perspective of Americans, Russians, Chinese, and Eurasians, each of whom bring different ideas to the problems they face. At its heart, Retrograde is about the dilemma between loyalty and trust. Our tribal reaction to stress is to withdraw, to stay loyal to those similar to us, those we feel comfortable with. We’re naturally suspicious of strangers, but in the confines of a base built inside a lava tube, trust is a necessity.
You mentioned Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Robert J. Sawyer [Red Planet Blues] compared Retrograde to The Martian as well, but the plot actually reminds me of Weir’s upcoming novel, Artemis, which is about people living in a colony on The Moon. Obviously, you can’t comment on Artemis, since it’s not out yet, but do you think Retrograde is anything like The Martian? For instance, is it super detail and scientifically accurate, but also funny?
Retrograde doesn’t have the humor of The Martian, but it does seek to accurately convey what life would be like on Mars. Science is constantly learning more about Mars, and I’ve incorporated some of the latest ideas into the novel to give it realism. What would it be like to walk on the surface of Mars? Most people imagine it would be similar to walking in a desert, but the reality is the average temperature on Mars is -80F, while the average in Antarctica is around -50F. Mars is so far out from the Sun that the light on the brightest day would appear overcast to us, at about 50% of what we receive on Earth. But the most noticeable aspect of living on Mars would be its gravity, at just 38% of what we experience on Earth. In a spacesuit, colonists would bounce around like the Apollo astronauts of old. Without those spacesuits, moving around within the confines of their base, they’d feel as light as a feather and would find even such every day activities as walking akin to being on a trampoline.
Speaking of Andy Weir’s novels, are there any writers or specific books that you feel had a big impact on Retrograde, but were not a big influence on your writing style as a whole?
I’d like to think Retrograde could slot in chronologically between such books as The Martian and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy [Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars] or Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues, both of which look further into the future. Robinson’s Red Mars definitely influenced the international feel of the novel. Rather than adopting a broad view, though, I took a close personal point-of-view, one where the protagonist is sometimes too close to the action to see clearly, challenging readers to pick up on clues the protagonist has missed. In that regard, it’s closer to The Martian and Red Planet Blues.
What about movies, TV shows, or video games? Do you think any of them had an impact on Retrograde? Because the idea of a war on Earth having an impact on people in outer space reminds me of the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
Strangely enough, movies, TV shows, and video games have had an anti-effect. As much as I love them, they often gloss over characters. Action is king. In Retrograde, I deliberately slow things down, allowing the reader to appreciate the diversity of characters all grappling with the same core crisis, but in different ways. I think that helps the book become more grounded. Recently, I was watching a making-of video for Game Of Thrones on Google Play [“The Battle Of The Bastards: An In-Depth Look,” which is also on Game Of Thrones: The Complete Sixth Season] and the commentator made the point that, after The Battle Of the Bastards, “No one cares about how many wildlings were killed, only that Jon Snow survives,” as he’s the only one they’ve seen as a character. For me, that’s the key point. Action without character is meaningless. Until readers — or viewers— learn something of the emotions, reactions, attitudes, values, and personality of a character, they really don’t care what happens to them. Rather than deal with stereotypes, I’ve built character first, action second.
I thoroughly enjoy movies about Mars, but beyond visuals, there wasn’t any direct influence. The only influence that came from videos was from YouTube clips I’ve seen of astronauts on the International Space Station, or interviews with such astronauts as Scott Kelly, Chris Hadfield, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Karen Nyberg. I’ve tried to capture some of their resolve, professionalism, integrity, and calmness under extreme pressure. I’ve asked the question: What would shake these guys? How would they react? What would they do if they were stranded on Mars with dwindling resources?
Retrograde was originally published last year in your native Australia as Mars Endeavour. Is there any difference between that version and Retrograde?
My original goal was to write a story that carries the reader to Mars and makes them feel as though they’re peering over the shoulder of the protagonist. I count it a privilege to have worked with John Joseph Adams, Ken Liu, and the team at HMH [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, his American publisher] to refine the content of Mars Endeavour to form Retrograde. The kernel of the story is intact. There are no structural changes, but the content has been polished, the dialogue is smoother, and the plot flows more naturally.
I also received some additional input from a senior engineer at SpaceX, along with a mission controller from NASA in Houston to help tighten a few of the operational aspects of the story.
All in all, Retrograde is a stronger, more mature version of Mars Endeavour.
Interesting. Now, in the press materials for Retrograde it lists among your interests, “Reading Winnie The Pooh or Dr. Seuss to his kids.” Did you ever consider writing a surrealistic rhyming kids book about Winnie, Eeyore, and the gang being stuck on Mars when war breaks out on Earth? Because your kids may not appreciate that, but I sure as hell would.
It’s funny you should ask. There’s a sublime brilliance to children’s books. Winnie The Pooh casually deals with vastly different personality types in an astonishingly mature adult manner. Dr. Seuss, with his blistering insights into the often bewildering world of adults, is anything but childish. Though I haven’t written such a book, Dr. Andrew Rader from SpaceX has. Dr. Rader is a prominent science communicator on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and wrote the afterword for Retrograde, reviewing some of the scientific challenges of living on Mars. He’s also written a such kids books as Mars Rover Rescue to inspire young minds to reach for the stars.
One of the big things in sci-fi these days is that novels are not just stand-alone stories, but are instead part of a series. Is that the case with Retrograde?
Originally, Retrograde was a stand-alone novel, but the response from readers to the characters and situations described in the story has been so positive I’ve started a sequel called Fallen Gods. I’m roughly a quarter of the way through, and I’ve surprised myself with how much I can draw upon from Retrograde. I love it when stories sneak up on me as an author. I’m not a plotter. When I write, it’s akin to binge watching a TV series. I’m working with the loose threads of numerous ideas, and I’m as interested in where they will lead as anyone else. I thoroughly enjoy painting characters into a corner and then thinking, “How the hell are they going to get out of that?” Only, instead of waiting for the next episode, I’m the one that has to figure it out.
I asked you earlier about movies, TV shows, and games possibly being an influence on Retrograde. Would you like to see someone make a Retrograde movie or TV show?
Absolutely. Traditionally, writers have had a torturous relationship with movies. Often, novels don’t translate faithfully to the big screen, simply because there’s a different focus in films and some of the subtle nuances can be lost. In recent years, however, such books as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Arrival, and The Martian have been huge hits as movies, and have stayed true to their origins. I think that’s a testimony to great story telling in written form, and the professionalism of Hollywood. I’d love to see Retrograde on the silver screen as the action unfolds in lava tubes, on Martian clifftops, and in ancient, dried-up riverbeds. I think the ingenious minds of the Hollywood special effects teams would transport us to the fourth planet for a wild ride.
If Retrograde was to be made into a movie, who would you like them to cast in the main roles and why them?
When writing, I try to avoid having any actors in mind as book characters to avoid slipping into stereotypes, so I really don’t know who I’d want to see cast as these characters. Ideally, I’d like to see fresh actors rather than big names, as the story is about everyday people. Sure, they’re scientists and astronauts, but they’re also down-to-Earth — or down-to-Mars — good people trying to cope with a crisis thrust upon them.
Finally, if someone enjoys Retrograde, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Oh, that’s a loaded question. I’ve written over twenty novels, novellas, and short stories. No two are alike, and the titles vary from such seemingly innocuous books as All Our Tomorrows to the provocative Alien Space Tentacle Porn and My Sweet Satan. I also specialize in writing about First Contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, and have written numerous books along these lines from a number of angles, so perhaps Anomaly, Xenophobia, or Welcome To The Occupied States Of America.