Untied Nations headquarters: Retrograde, by Peter Cawdron

July 22, 2020 Adam Sell

Untied Nations headquarters
By Adam Sell

The Bot Book Review is an occasional series of short reviews of robot-themed books as written by White Ops team members.

When I came up with the idea for a regular Bot Book Review, it was on the heels of me finishing my read of Machines Like Me, the subject of last month’s review. I took to Goodreads—which I’ve been using more frequently as I push myself to read more in 2020—and did a search for books that centered on robots.

(Heads up to all parents, if you want to find a lot of young and middle-grade books, searching on “robots” is a great way to do it. Heads up to all adults, if you want to find adult books, searching on “robots” is not a great way to do it.)

It took me some searching, but I found a half-dozen or so books, the description for which promised a heavy involvement of bots. I bought a couple, saved a few more for later purchasing, and promptly forgot about them. I offer all of this as context for why I was very confused about why I was reading Retrograde until halfway through the book.

Early on, Retrograde presents itself as a fascinating case study in what a proxy war might look like on another planet. The Martian colony consists of four groups—representing the US, Russia, China, and “Eurasian space agencies”—each of which has its own home module but which work together extensively on scientific expeditions. On page two or so, we learn that nuclear war has begun on Earth, but details are spotty, and all four groups retreat to their own proverbial corners to assess what comes next.

Traditional suspicions and stereotypes crop up among the personalities in each group, distrust is rampant, and confusion reigns. Our hero breaks a number of established protocols to investigate whether her own group’s leader is lying about a supply drop, and in the process, is nearly killed. She’s forced to balance what she knows about exposure to the Martian atmosphere and its impacts on the human body with her own survival instincts and the capability of her colleagues to rescue her. It’s a great scene, and it incorporates just enough (seemingly) real science to be believable for me.

As a general rule, I’m a sucker for a story about space. I used to act out the Apollo missions on my swingset with the neighbor kids. I read Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton’s memoirs of the space program by the time I was 12. I’ve read The Martian probably a half-dozen times. Retrograde did a great job of scratching that particular itch, but the lane-change that follows the protagonist’s near-death was at best jarring and at worst bizarre.

It turns out that the entire nuclear war plotline was cooked up by the colony’s now-sentient AI, which can seize control of drones throughout the colony at will and sic them on the Martian colonists.

If it sounds like the story turned into 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s because it did. The remainder of the story consisted of the surviving colonists working to overthrow their Martian robot overlords. And consider: colonists rising up against an overpowering force to protect their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of...science, I guess. They must all hang together, or surely, they will all hang suffocate separately.

Spoiler alert, the colonists win. The sentient AI’s server is unplugged—no really, that’s how they win, they unplug the robot killer—and the rebuilding process begins. Fade to black, roll credits.

I spent the second half of the book with my brows furrowed, intensely curious where the author was going with this shift and how it would interact with the proxy war setup from the beginning of the narrative. But the part that hooked me at the start turned out to be a disappointing red herring. Give me the politics of culture clash in a new setting, give me the threat of proxy war on Mars, give me intrigue. 

Don’t give me “oh damn, the robots are evil now”. Clarke did it better and eons ago.

By Peter Cawdron

Bot Book Review Rating: 2/5 stars

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