Monday, January 27, 2020

Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published: Tor, 2018
Series: Book 1 of the Lady Astronaut series
Awards Nominated: Campbell Memorial Award
Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula and Locus SF Awards

The Book:

A meteor decimates the U.S. government and paves the way for a climate cataclysm that will eventually render the earth inhospitable to humanity. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated timeline in the earth’s efforts to colonize space, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for a much larger share of humanity to take part.

One of these new entrants in the space race is Elma York, whose experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.”
I decided to read this one because it won a Hugo Award (among other awards), but also because I’ve enjoyed Kowal’s work in the past.  Back when I was reviewing short fiction (which I will totally do again someday, just not for a while yet), I featured some of her work on this blog that was set in this universe.  In my opinion, she and Marie Brennan have a similar style, so I’d expect fans of one would like the other.
My Thoughts:

The Calculating Stars is an alternate history that imagines a very different Space Race in the 1950s.  Instead of competing for political capital, the countries of the world are pushed into space research by a climate disaster that may make the Earth uninhabitable.  The desire to colonize other planets or moons, rather than to simply plant flags, provides the motivation for men in power to seriously consider a women’s astronaut training program.  After all, a colony with no women can’t sustain itself independently of Earth. The story begins with an intense first-hand experience of the meteorite strike, and continues through the development and progress of the fledgling space program.  The latter part of the story involves much more political and social maneuvering than action. 

The person doing most of this maneuvering is the heroine, Elma York.  With the character of Elma, Kowal has embraced the familiar “you have to be twice as good to be thought half as able” adage, by which I mean to say that Elma is amazing.  She’s a brilliant mathematician, cool under pressure, and a highly skilled jet pilot. The difficulties she faces are primarily external, with the exception of a debilitating anxiety associated with public speaking.  Her anxiety makes the necessary public performances required for changing hearts and minds challenging for her, even though it doesn’t impact her capability as a scientist or astronaut. I appreciated how this part of the story showed the stigma associated with asking for help, as well as the fact that taking medication for a mental health condition does not make a person any less than they were.  Overall, I liked Elma, and I wanted for her to make her dreams come true.

In addition, I enjoyed seeing Elma’s relationships with others.  She’s a scientist and a pilot, but she is also happily married. She and her husband are a very affectionate couple, and this doesn’t impact either of them being taken seriously as a scientist. I liked seeing that their marriage is a source of strength for both of them, and not a source of stress.  Stable and supportive relationships don’t seem to be very common in fiction, so this was a nice change. Elma also counts many female pilots from diverse backgrounds among her friends, and we see through them the additional barriers that are often faced by women of color. I appreciated the way Elma’s solidarity with others demonstrated that she was part of a larger movement, and that her push to make “Lady Astronauts” a reality was not going to end with her.

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Calculating Stars is an interesting alternate history that imagines a different Space Race spurred into action by a meteorite-related climate disaster.  Within the frame of this story, we follow the exceptionally skilled and intelligent Elma York, who is determined to become an astronaut.  Elma has to fight against the conventions of the day, but her intense anxiety associated with public speaking makes this a challenge. I appreciated that Elma was able to be a scientist, a pilot, and a loving wife, and that she cultivated many friendships with other highly skilled women.  With the conclusion of this book, I feel confident that she is blazing a trail for many and not just for herself. The second half of this duology, The Fated Sky, is already out, and it is definitely on my list of books to read.

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