Books by Cawdron, Peter

Cawdron, Peter. Anomaly. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4657-7394-4.
One otherwise perfectly normal day, a sphere of space 130 metres in diameter outside the headquarters of the United Nations in New York including a slab of pavement and a corner of the General Assembly building becomes detached from Earth's local reference frame and begins to rotate, maintaining a fixed orientation with respect to the distant stars, returning to its original orientation once per sidereal day. Observers watch in awe as the massive slab of pavement, severed corner of the U.N. building, and even flagpoles and flags which happened to fall within the sphere defy gravity and common sense, turning on end, passing overhead, and then coming back to their original orientation every day.

Through a strange set of coincidences, schoolteacher David Teller, who first realised and blurted out on live television that the anomaly wasn't moving as it appeared to Earth dwellers, but rather was stationary with respect to the stars, and third-string TV news reporter Cathy Jones find themselves the public face of the scientific investigation of the anomaly, conducted by NASA under the direction of the imposing James Mason, “Director of National Security”. An off-the-cuff experiment shows that the anomaly has its own local gravitational field pointing in the original direction, down toward the slab, and that no barrier separates the inside and outside of the anomaly. Teller does the acrobatics to climb onto the slab, using a helium balloon to detect the up direction as he enters into the anomaly, and observers outside see him standing, perfectly at ease, at a crazy angle to their own sense of vertical. Sparked by a sudden brainstorm, Teller does a simple experiment to test whether the anomaly might be an alien probe attempting to make contact, and the results set off a sequence of events which, although implausible at times, never cease to be entertaining and raise the question of whether if we encountered technologies millions or billions of years more advanced than our own, we would even distinguish them from natural phenomena (and, conversely, whether some of the conundrums scientists puzzle over today might be evidence of such technologies—“dark energy”, anyone?).

The prospect of first contact sets off a firestorm: bureaucratic turf battles, media struggling for access, religious leaders trying to put their own spin on what it means, nations seeking to avoid being cut out of a potential bounty of knowledge from contact by the U.S., upon whose territory the anomaly happened to appear. These forces converge toward a conclusion which will have you saying every few pages, “I didn't see that coming”, and one of the most unlikely military confrontations in all of the literature of science fiction and thrillers. As explained in the after-word, the author is trying to do something special in this story, which I shall not reveal here to avoid spoiling your figuring it out for yourself and making your own decision as to how well he succeeded.

At just 50,000 words, this is a short novel, but it tells its story well. At this writing, the Kindle edition sells for just US$0.99 (no print edition is available), so it's a bargain notwithstanding its brevity.

December 2011 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. Children's Crusade. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2014. ASIN B00JFHIMQI.
This novella, around 80 pages print equivalent and available only for the Kindle, is set in the world of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. The publisher has licensed the rights for fiction using characters and circumstances created by Vonnegut, and this is a part of “The World of Kurt Vonnegut” series. If you haven't read Slaughterhouse-Five you will miss a great deal about this story.

Here we encounter Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack in their alien zoo on Tralfamadore. Their zookeeper, a Tralfamadorian Montana nicknamed Stained, due to what looked like a birthmark on the face, has taken to visiting the humans when the zoo is closed, communicating with them telepathically as Tralfs do. Perceiving time as a true fourth dimension they can browse at will, Tralfs are fascinated with humans who, apart from Billy, live sequential lives and cannot jump around to explore events in their history.

Stained, like most Tralfs, believes that most momentous events in history are the work not of great leaders but of “little people” who accomplish great things when confronted with extraordinary circumstances. He (pronouns get complicated when there are five sexes, so I'll just pick one) sends Montana and Billy on telepathic journeys into human history, one at the dawn of human civilisation and another when a great civilisation veered into savagery, to show how a courageous individual with a sense of what is right can make all the difference. Finally they voyage together to a scene in human history which will bring tears to your eyes.

This narrative is artfully intercut with scenes of Vonnegut discovering the realities of life as a hard-boiled reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. This story is written in the spirit of Vonnegut and with some of the same stylistic flourishes, but I didn't get the sense the author went overboard in adopting Vonnegut's voice. The result worked superbly for this reader.

I read a pre-publication manuscript which the author kindly shared with me.

April 2014 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. Feedback. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4954-9195-5.
The author has established himself as the contemporary grandmaster of first contact science fiction. His earlier Anomaly (December 2011), Xenophobia (August 2013), and Little Green Men (September 2013) all envisioned very different scenarios for a first encounter between humans and intelligent extraterrestrial life, and the present novel is as different from those which preceded it as they are from each other, and equally rewarding to the reader.

South Korean Coast Guard helicopter pilot John Lee is flying a covert mission to insert a U.S. Navy SEAL team off the coast of North Korea to perform a rescue mission when his helicopter is shot down by a North Korean fighter. He barely escapes with his life when the chopper ditches in the ocean, makes it to land, and realises he is alone in North Korea without any way to get home. He is eventually captured and taken to a military camp where he is tortured to reveal information about a rumoured UFO crash off the coast of Korea, about which he knows nothing. He meets an enigmatic English-speaking boy who some call the star-child.

Twenty years later, in New York City, physics student Jason Noh encounters an enigmatic young Korean woman who claims to have just arrived in the U.S. and is waiting for her father. Jason, given to doodling arcane equations as his mind runs free, befriends her and soon finds himself involved in a surrealistic sequence of events which causes him to question everything he has come to believe about the world and his place in it.

This an enthralling story which will have you scratching your head at every twist and turn wondering where it's going and how all of this is eventually going to make sense. It does, with a thoroughly satisfying resolution. Regrettably, if I say anything more about where the story goes, I'll risk spoiling it by giving away one or more of the plot elements which the reader discovers as the narrative progresses. I was delighted to see an idea about the nature of flying saucers I first wrote about in 1997 appear here, but please don't follow that link until you've read the book as it too would spoil a revelation which doesn't emerge until well into the story.

A Kindle edition is available. I read a pre-publication manuscript edition which the author kindly shared with me.

February 2014 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. Little Green Men. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2013. ISBN 978-1-3017-6672-7.
The author is rapidly emerging as the contemporary grandmaster of the first contact novel. Unlike his earlier Anomaly (December 2011) and Xenophobia (August 2013), this novel is set not in near-future Earth but rather three centuries from now, when an exploration team has landed on a cryogenic planet 23 light years from the solar system in search of volatiles to refuel their ship in orbit. Science officer Michaels believes he's discovered the first instance of extraterrestrial life, after centuries of searching hundreds of star systems and thousands of planets in vain. While extremophile microbes are a humble form of life, discovering that life originated independently on another world would forever change humanity's view of its place in the universe.

Michaels and his assistant collect a sample to analyse back at the ship and are returning to their scout craft when, without warning, they are attacked, with the assistant gravely wounded. The apparent attackers are just fast-moving shadows, scattering when Michaels lights a flare. Upon getting back to the ship with the assistant barely clinging to life, Michaels has a disturbing conversation with the ship's doctor which causes him to suspect that there have been other mysterious incidents.

Another scouting party reports discovering a derelict freighter which appears nowhere in the registry of ships lost in the region, and when exploring it, are confronted with hostile opposition in about the least probable form you might imagine finding on a planet at 88° K. I suppose it isn't a spoiler if I refer you to the title of the book.

The crew are forced to confront what is simultaneously a dire threat to their lives, a profound scientific discovery, and a deep mystery which just doesn't make any sense. First contact just wasn't supposed to be anything like this, and it's up to Michaels and the crew to save their skins and figure out what is going on. The answer will amaze you.

The author dedicates this book as a tribute to Philip K. Dick, and this is a story worthy of the master. In the acknowledgements, he cites Michael Crichton among those who have influenced his work. As with Crichton's novels, this is a story where the screenplay just writes itself. This would make a superb movie and, given the claustrophobic settings and small cast of characters, wouldn't require a huge budget to make.

This book is presently available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above.

September 2013 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. My Sweet Satan. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2014. ASIN B00NBA6Y1A.
Here the author adds yet another imaginative tale of first contact to his growing list of novels in that genre, a puzzle story which the viewpoint character must figure out having lost memories of her entire adult life. After a botched attempt at reanimation from cryo-sleep, Jasmine Holden finds herself with no memories of her life after the age of nineteen. And yet, here she is, on board Copernicus, in the Saturn system, closing in on the distant retrograde moon Bestla which, when approached by a probe from Earth, sent back an audio transmission to its planet of origin which was mostly gibberish but contained the chilling words: “My sweet Satan. I want to live and die for you, my glorious Satan!”. A follow-up unmanned probe to Bestla is destroyed as it approaches, and the Copernicus is dispatched to make a cautious investigation of what appears to be an alien probe with a disturbing theological predisposition.

Back on Earth, sentiment has swung back and forth about the merits of exploring Bestla and fears of provoking an alien presence in the solar system which, by its very capability of interstellar travel, must be far in advance of Earthly technology. Jasmine, a key member of the science team, suddenly finds herself mentally a 19 year old girl far from her home, and confronted both by an unknown alien presence but also conflict among her crew members, who interpret the imperatives of the mission in different ways.

She finds the ship's computer, an early stage artificial intelligence, the one being in which she can confide, and the only one who comprehends her predicament and is willing to talk her through procedures she learned by heart in her training but have been lost to an amnesia she feels compelled to conceal from human members of the crew.

As the ship approaches Bestla, conflict erupts among the crew, and Jasmine must sort out what is really going on and choose sides without any recollections of her earlier interactions with her crew members. In a way, this is three first contact novels in one: 19 year old Jasmine making contact with her fellow crew members about which she remembers nothing, the Copernicus and whatever is on Bestla, and a third contact about which I cannot say anything without spoiling the story.

This is a cracking good first contact novel which, just when you're nearing the end and beginning to worry “Where's the sense of wonder?” delivers everything you'd hoped for and more.

I read a pre-publication manuscript edition which the author kindly shared with me.

September 2014 Permalink

Cawdron, Peter. Xenophobia. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4905-6823-2.
This is the author's second novel of humanity's first contact with an alien species, but it is not a sequel to his earlier Anomaly (December 2011); the story is completely unrelated, and the nature of the aliens and the way in which the story plays out could not be more different, not only from the earlier novel, but from the vast majority of first contact fiction. To borrow terminology from John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, most tales of first contact are “the happening world”, cutting back and forth between national capitals, military headquarters, scientific institutions, and so on, while this story is all about “tracking with closeups”. Far from the seats of power, most of the story takes place in civil-war-torn Malawi. It works superbly.

Elizabeth Bower is a British doctor working with Médecins Sans Frontières at a hospital in a rural part of the country. Without warning, a U.S. military contingent, operating under the U.N. flag, arrives with orders to evacuate all personnel. Bower refuses to abandon those in her care, and persuades a detachment of Army Rangers to accompany her and the patients to a Red Cross station in Kasungu. During the journey, Bower and the Rangers learn that Western forces are being evacuated world-wide following the announcement that an alien spacecraft is bound for Earth, and military assets are being regrouped in their home countries to defend them.

Bower and the Rangers then undertake the overland trek to the capital of Lilongwe, where they hope to catch an evacuation flight for U.S. Marines still in the city. During the journey, things get seriously weird: the alien mothership, as large as a small country, is seen passing overhead; a multitude of probes rain down and land all around, seemingly on most of the globe; and giant jellyfish-like “floaters” enter the atmosphere and begin to cruise with unfathomable objectives.

Upon arrival at the capital, their problems are not with aliens but with two-legged Terries—rebel forces. They are ambushed, captured, and delivered into the hands of a delusional, megalomaniacal, and sadistic “commander”. Bower and a Ranger who styles himself as “Elvis” are forced into an impossible situation in which their only hope is to make common cause with an alien.

This is a tautly plotted story in which the characters are genuinely fleshed-out and engaging. It does a superb job of sketching the mystery of a first contact situation: where humans and aliens lack the means to communicate all but the most basic concepts and have every reason to distrust each other's motives. As is the case with many independently-published novels, there are a number of copy-editing errors: I noted a total of 26. There also some factual goofs: the Moon's gravity is about 1/6 of that of the Earth, not 1/3; the verbal description of the computation of the Fibonacci sequence is incorrect; the chemical formula for water is given incorrectly; and Lagrange points are described as gravitational hilltops, while the dynamics are better described by thinking of them as valleys. None of these detracts in any way from enjoying the story.

In the latter part of the book, the scale expands at a vertiginous pace from a close-up personal story to sense of wonder on the interstellar scale. There is a scene, reminiscent of one of the most harrowing episodes in the Heinlein juveniles, which I still find chilling when I recall it today (you'll know which one I'm speaking of when you get there), in which the human future is weighed in the balance.

This is a thoroughly satisfying novel which looks at first contact in an entirely different way than any other treatment I've encountered. It will also introduce you to a new meaning of the “tree of life”.

August 2013 Permalink