The novel is set in the near future, i.e., the mid-70s. The international space station Epsilon is in orbit 460 miles above the Earth. Its eight-person crew have been aboard for nearly six months, with just three weeks to go before returning to Earth.
The crew is led by the rugged, square-jawed American astronaut Mike Harder. Also on board are two women, June Strond and Paige Alison; the German doctor Werner Koelbe; the Frenchman Henry Guy-Michel; the Britisher Tim Pollard; and two other Americans, Bill Jordan and Luke Parsons.
One of the tasks the crew are obliged to perform in their final days aboard the Epsilon is to obtain samples of space dust, and store them for delivery back to Earth. The collection effort goes well, but just a few days afterwards, Bill Jordan becomes ill….his skin marred by an unusual rash. Despite the best efforts of Dr. Koelbe, Jordan's condition deteriorates with alarming speed........
To the horror of commander Mike Harder, it appears that an unknown pathogen has gained access to the ship’s crew……and as the healthy crewmembers struggle to aid their shipmates, the knowledge that they, too, are potential victims of the unknown plague fills them with dread.
And to make things worse, when news of the crisis on the Epsilon becomes known to the Earth’s population, conflict breaks out over whether to bring the crew home for treatment….or leave them to die in the airless void of space…….
The cover blurb for ‘Four Came Back’ leads the reader to believe that the novel is a sci-fi thriller in the mode of Crichton’s classic ‘The Andromeda Strain’. But the reality is that ‘Four’ is really more of a clone of the 1968 disaster novel ‘Airport’, by Arthur Hailey.
For author Caidin, the space plague is simply a background upon which the narrative – which primarily is devoted to elaborating on the melodramatic interactions of the characters - unfolds.
Indeed, in ‘Four’, the exposure of the crew to the space dust doesn’t take place until the halfway point of the novel. The first half deals with the evolving romantic relationship between June, the idealized 60s liberated, sensual Norwegian bombshell, and the reserved Mike Harder. Complicating things is the presence of Henri, who – as the inevitably randy Frenchman – is happy to try and bed June, while Harder- the stereotypical American man of action who is out of touch with his feelings - can only look on with increasing frustration and resentment.
While Caidin displays competence in writing about the technical aspects of life and work aboard the Epsilon, he is utterly over his head, and tone-deaf, as a romance novelist. The book has a large number of embarrassingly awful passages, such as this one:
And, all the while, he remained blind to the desires that surged through June’s young body.
As the novel’s title makes apparent, only four of the crew of the Epsilon will come back…..I won’t disclose any spoilers and declare who survives, who doesn’t, and whether the plague is defeated or not. I will say that for me, ‘Four’ was a dull and unrewarding slog. Unless you are a dedicated Martin Caidin fan and absolutely have to read every one of his novels, I recommend passing on this book.