Friday, October 5, 2018

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I was looking to add more science fiction to my reading, Mary Robinette Kowal's books came highly recommended. The Calculating Stars was the first that I found in the bookstore, and its back cover blurb sold me on the spot:
     Pilot, Physicist, Wife
    On a cold spring day in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to Earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington, D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render Earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
    Elma York's experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition's attempts to put man on the moon, as a computer. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved in the program, it doesn't take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can't go into space, too.
    Elma's drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
This is such a great story. I am not usually a fan of dystopian fiction, but there was a terrible fascination in reading about this cataclysm and watching its effects spread around the world. Elma and her husband Nathaniel, who were working together at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics before the Meteor, quickly realize that this could be an extinction event for the Earth. However, they have a hard time convincing people that something even worse than the Meteor is coming. Luckily, the highest-ranking Cabinet member to survive, now the President, is the former Secretary of Agriculture. He knows enough about weather patterns to understand and accept their arguments.

Elma and Nathaniel, who lost almost all of their family in the catastrophe, throw themselves into their work. I loved their strong, supportive marriage. They are true partners, both in work and in their relationship. Elma needs Nathaniel's support, as they struggle against the conventional sexism of the International Aerospace Coalition, and she has it every step of the way. Her experience as a pilot in World War II, her work as a "computer" solving the complex equations that underlie their work, her advanced degrees - all are discounted because of her gender. And she is instantly dismissed when she raises the question of sending women into space, despite her argument that if the IAC intends to establish colonies and communities, women will have to be present. I shared Elma's frustration as she is dismissed and belittled, as men mock the very idea of "astronettes." That part of the story felt so very timely.

At the same time, Elma comes up against her own assumptions and prejudices when they are billeted with an African American couple (housing in the nation's new capitol is scarce). Raised in Charleston, she realizes that she has never been in a black person's home. She also comes to see that black men are excluded from the astronaut project. Trying to argue the case for women astronauts, she is introduced to a group of African American women pilots, who educate her on the discrimination they have faced. It was interesting watching Elma struggle with these new ideas, and work out relationships with potential allies, bonding in part over a shared love of flying. Ms. Kowal has talked about the push-back she has gotten from people for including one black character as a computer working with Elma's group. These people apparently missed Hidden Figures completely. Both the book and the film are included in a "Historical Note" at the end of this book. That and the bibliography that follows are adding to my reading list.

I had the pleasure of hearing Mary Robinette Kowal speak at Murder by the Book this week, at a shared event with Martha Wells. I was thrilled to get my "Lady Astronaut Club" membership card, though I can't bring myself to write my name on it yet.

Isn't that a gorgeous cover?

I already have the sequel, The Fated Sky, on the TBR stacks, and I was happy to hear there will be a third book. I also found a novella, "The Lady Astronaut of Mars," which if I understood correctly was written first. But even worse for my TBR stacks, I also found the Ms. Kowal has written a series set in the Regency, "in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality." John at Murder by the Book said they're Jane Austen with magic, and I was powerless to resist.


  1. I so want to read this book! Awesome review. :)

    1. Thank you! I hope you do - at least it should be available in the library, and hopefully the sequel as well.

  2. Wonderful review. I've read three or four of her other novels (some from her Regency series and Ghost Talkers) and find the topics she chooses to write about fascinating. I'll definitely need to give this one a try.

    1. I just got Ghost Talkers from the library this weekend and I can't wait to read it.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!