The Calculating Stars (Amazon)
I remember Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent short story, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” from my award list reading a few years ago. It went through some nomination drama and eventually appeared on the 2014 novelette ballot (I didn’t vote that year), winning the category. That story launched this series, as I understand it, by introducing us to Elma York – America’s first woman astronaut in an alt-history world where humans took to the stars much earlier. You can read the novelette for free on Tor.com.
SPOILER BIT SO SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE NOVELETTE: To me, the strength of the novelette lies in the excruciating choice that Elma must make in the twilight years of her life, to accept the mission because sending an aging body into space means the radiation won’t destroy the health of a younger astronaut, but trade away her chance to spend time with her dying husband in his final weeks of life. I knew nearly nothing about Elma or Nate (obviously), but the emotional punch of that story has not faded in the least since reading that story.
OK, SPOILER FREE AGAIN.
So I was genuinely interested in this first book of a two-prequel series by Kowal that promises to fill in the background of this “Lady Astronaut” who clearly (we know from just the title of the novelette) made it to Mars.
The world Kowal builds in The Calculating Stars is detailed and precise. It’s a nearly exact 1950s USA with one HUGE difference – a meteor strikes the seabed just off the coast of DC and Baltimore, obliterating the Eastern seaboard. The US is forced to confront the reality of impending climate change (this is a similar theme to Stephenson’s Seveneves, which I hated so much). Two chapters in, I knew I was reading a better book than Stephenson’s. Kowal packs in the necessary scientific explanations of how a meteor strike would alter the earth’s climate to be hostile to life (cf: dinosaurs, way back when) and man’s only option is to take to space. So… they do.
This is the story of Elma York, a Jew and “calculator” who crunches numbers in the pre-digital era, echoes similar themes that occur in Hidden Figures. (My goodness, if you haven’t seen that movie yet, drop everything and go find it (like on Prime). And I’ve got the book on my pile to read, because I’ve heard it’s far more extensive than what they could fit into a film.).
That said…. this just wasn’t the book for me. Maybe it’s me? The writing is very good – crisp sentences, solid plotting, clear structure. The story has stuck in my brain and keeps returning to my mind, so clearly the characters meant something to me. But it felt too much like a history book that I hadn’t signed up to read, you know?
Elma discrimination as a woman; she’s told outright that no women will fly to Mars, though she knows (as should everyone) that eventually a colony would need women around. Of course, she’s a crack WASP-era pilot and spunky intelligent woman….but not without flaws that could imperil her trip into space.
I’m so divided about this book. I feel like I’m supposed to root for it, like it, give it to everyone I know, and feel smug because it’s progressive and all.
I think that’s the problem. Maybe I didn’t need Elma’s history filled in for me, because I’d rather read the actual history of the women in the 50s and 60s and 70s (and for
decades centuries previously) whose contributions to science have always been overlooked.
Somehow, the alt-history tale of American misogyny and innovation falls flat (to me) compared to the actual horrors of 2019 or 1969 or Jim Crow, or the actual achievements of the Apollo project and Grace Hopper and Sally Ride and Mae Jemison (America’s first black woman in space).
Rating: 3.5/5 – it’s not you, Kowal, it’s me.
Recommended for folks who enjoy the space program, the nuts and bolts of the relevant engineering problems, and alt-history.
Hugo Ballot: Middle