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Monday, December 17, 2018

Reading List: Losing Mars

Cawdron, Peter. Losing Mars. Brisbane, Australia: Independent, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7237-4729-8.
Peter Cawdron has established himself as the contemporary grandmaster of first contact science fiction. In a series of novels including Anomaly (December 2011), Xenophobia (August 2013), Little Green Men (September 2013), Feedback (February 2014), and My Sweet Satan (September 2014), he has explored the first encounter of humans with extraterrestrial life in a variety of scenarios, all with twists and turns that make you question the definition of life and intelligence.

This novel is set on Mars, where a nominally international but strongly NASA-dominated station has been set up by the six-person crew first to land on the red planet. The crew of Shepard station, three married couples, bring a variety of talents to their multi-year mission of exploration: pilot, engineer, physician, and even botanist: Cory Anderson (the narrator) is responsible for the greenhouse which will feed the crew during their mission. They have a fully-fueled Mars Return Vehicle, based upon NASA's Orion capsule, ready to go, and their ticket back to Earth, the Schiaparelli return stage, waiting in Mars orbit, but orbital mechanics dictates when they can return to Earth, based on the two-year cycle of Earth-Mars transfer opportunities. The crew is acutely aware that the future of Mars exploration rests on their shoulders: failure, whether a tragedy in which they were lost, or even cutting their mission short, might result in “losing Mars” in the same way humanity abandoned the Moon for fifty years after “flags and footprints” visits had accomplished their chest-beating goal.

The Shepard crew are confronted with a crisis not of their making when a Chinese mission, completely unrelated to theirs, attempting to do “Mars on a shoestring” by exploring its moon Phobos, faces disaster when a poorly-understood calamity kills two of its four crew and disables their spacecraft. The two surviving taikonauts show life signs on telemetry but have not communicated with their mission control and, with their ship disabled, are certain to die when their life support consumables are exhausted.

The crew, in consultation with NASA, conclude the only way to mount a rescue mission is for the pilot and Cory, the only crew member who can be spared, to launch in the return vehicle, rendezvous with the Schiaparelli, use it to match orbits with the Chinese ship, rescue the survivors, and then return to Earth with them. (The return vehicle is unable to land back on Mars, being unequipped for a descent and soft landing through its thin atmosphere.) This will leave the four remaining crew of the Shepard with no way home until NASA can send a rescue mission, which will take two years to arrive at Mars. However unappealing the prospect, they conclude that abandoning the Chinese crew to die when rescue was possible would be inhuman, and proceed with the plan.

It is only after arriving at Phobos, after the half-way point in the book, that things begin to get distinctly weird and we suddenly realise that Peter Cawdron is not writing a novelisation of a Kerbal Space Program rescue scenario but is rather up to his old tricks and there is much more going on here than you've imagined from the story so far.

Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but he struck out 1,330 times. For me, this story is a swing and a miss. It takes a long, long time to get going, and we must wade through a great deal of social justice virtue signalling to get there. (Lesbians in space? Who could have imagined? Oh, right….) Once we get to the “good part”, the narrative is related in a fractured manner reminiscent of Vonnegut (I'm trying to avoid spoilers—you'll know what I'm talking about if you make it that far). And the copy editing and fact checking…oh, dear.

There are no fewer than seven idiot “it's/its” bungles, two on one page. A solar powered aircraft is said to have “turboprop engines”. Alan Shepard's suborbital mission is said to have been launched on a “prototype Redstone rocket” (it wasn't), which is described as an “intercontinental ballistic missile” (it was a short range missile with a maximum range of 323 km), which subjected the astronaut to “nine g's [sic] launching” (it was actually 6.3 g), with reentry g loads “more than that of the gas giant Saturn” (which is correct, but local gravity on Saturn is just 1.065 g, as the planet is very large and less dense than water). Military officers who defy orders are tried by a court martial, not “court marshaled”. The Mercury-Atlas 3 launch failure which Shepard witnessed at the Cape did not “[end] up in a fireball a couple of hundred feet above the concrete”: in fact it was destroyed by ground command forty-three seconds after launch at an altitude of several kilometres due to a guidance system failure, and the launch escape system saved the spacecraft and would have allowed an astronaut, had one been on board, to land safely. It's “bungee” cord, not “Bungie”. “Navy” is not an acronym, and hence is not written “NAVY”. The Juno orbiter at Jupiter does not “broadcast with the strength of a cell phone”; it has a 25 watt transmitter which is between twelve and twenty-five times more powerful than the maximum power of a mobile phone. He confuses “ecliptic” and “elliptical”, and states that the velocity of a spacecraft decreases as it approaches closer to a body in free fall (it increases). A spacecraft is said to be “accelerating at fifteen meters per second” which is a unit of velocity, not acceleration. A daughter may be the spitting image of her mother, but not “the splitting image”. Thousands of tiny wires do not “rap” around a plastic coated core, they “wrap”, unless they are special hip-hop wires which NASA has never approved for space flight. We do not live in a “barreled galaxy”, but rather a barred spiral galaxy.

Now, you may think I'm being harsh in pointing out these goofs which are not, after all, directly relevant to the plot of the novel. But errors of this kind, all of which could be avoided by research no more involved than looking things up in Wikipedia or consulting a guide to English usage, are indicative of a lack of attention to detail which, sadly, is also manifest in the main story line. To discuss these we must step behind the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
It is implausible in the extreme that the Schiaparelli would have sufficient extra fuel to perform a plane change maneuver from its orbital inclination of nearly twenty degrees to the near-equatorial orbit of Phobos, then raise its orbit to rendezvous with the moon. The fuel on board the Schiaparelli would have been launched from Earth, and would be just sufficient to return to Earth without any costly maneuvers in Mars orbit. The cost of launching such a large additional amount of fuel, not to mention the larger tanks to hold it, would be prohibitive.

(We're already in a spoiler block, but be warned that the following paragraph is a hideous spoiler of the entire plot.) Cory's ethical dilemma, on which the story turns, is whether to reveal the existence of the advanced technology alien base on Phobos to a humanity which he believes unprepared for such power and likely to use it to destroy themselves. OK, fine, that's his call (and that of Hedy, who also knows enough to give away the secret). But in the conclusion, we're told that, fifty years after the rescue mission, there's a thriving colony on Mars with eight thousand people in two subsurface towns, raising families. How probable is it, even if not a word was said about what happened on Phobos, that this thriving colony and the Earth-based space program which supported it would not, over half a century, send another exploration mission to Phobos, which is scientifically interesting in its own right? And given what Cory found there, any mission which investigated Phobos would have found what he did.

Finally, in the Afterword, the author defends his social justice narrative as follows.

At times, I've been criticized for “jumping on the [liberal] bandwagon” on topics like gay rights and Black Lives Matter across a number of books, but, honestly, it's the 21st century—the cruelty that still dominates how we humans deal with each other is petty and myopic. Any contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species will expose not only a vast technological gulf, but a moral one as well.
Well, maybe, but isn't it equally likely that when they arrive in their atomic space cars and imbibe what passes for culture and morality among the intellectual élite of the global Davos party and how obsessed these talking apes seem to be about who is canoodling whom with what, that after they stop laughing they may decide that we are made of atoms which they can use for something else.
Spoilers end here.  

Peter Cawdron's earlier novels have provided many hours of thought-provoking entertainment, spinning out the possibilities of first contact. The present book…didn't, although it was good for a few laughs. I'm not going to write off a promising author due to one strike-out. I hope his next outing resumes the home run streak.

A Kindle edition is available, which is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at December 17, 2018 12:28