Review: The Calculating Stars

Posted: August 7, 2018 by in Books We Like (4/5 single_star) Meta: Mary Robinette Kowal, Science Fiction

Did you read Mary Robinette Kowal’s 2014 Hugo-winning novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”? If not, you can read it here on the website, or for time’s sake my reaction to it at the bottom of this EBR Review post. In short, it was the obvious standout winner. The main character, Elma, is a 60-something former pilot/astronaut who must make the ultimate sacrifice. But after reading that, one wonders, how did history change to make it possible for 1950s Earth to colonize Mars?

Wonder no more!

In Kowal’s recent offering, THE CALCULATING STARS, we get to see what happened to cause Elma’s generation to end up on Mars. The book opens with a meteorite descending on the earth, and as a result the climate is predicted to go through a radical enough change that human life will no longer be sustainable. Now the governments of the world band together and begin a space race that will hopefully result in the continuation of human life.

And sure, the novel’s overarching plot is about that. But really, THE CALCULATING STARS is about a smaller element involved in the effort: the women of the space program.

Enter Elma York, who was a pilot during WWII where she delivered fighters to the male fighter pilots. She’s also a mathematic and physicist prodigy, with advanced degrees. But just as important is her marriage to Nathanial York, who becomes the lead engineer in the space program. If you’ve ever seen the move “Hidden Figures” then you’ll get a sense of the climate surrounding women and the space program as it was over 60 years ago. In THE CALCUATING STARS it’s much the same, with women working as computers (the mechanical computational machines were clunky, slow, and prone to error)–a job Elma excels at because of her ability to not only do math in her head but also come up with the equations that predict flight. But her wish more than anything is to become an astronaut.

Of course there are obstacles. This is the 1950s, afterall, and just because the survival of the human race is in question doesn’t mean that men will immediately recognize the value women could add to the endeavor. Fortunately Elma isn’t easily dissuaded, and she has the love and support of a husband who understands her. We watch as she struggles with anxiety, her role as a wife, awkward race relations, and dealing with misogyny–among other issues relevant to a woman deeply invested in seeing humans reach the moon, Mars, and beyond.

Kowall continues her Hugo Award winning short story set in an alternate history 1950s U.S. where Erma overcomes all to become a lady astronaut.

Told from Elma’s PoV, the story moves forward steadily, if not quickly. There’s math and mechanical issues, and other science and engineering related issues that are important to the story, but can slow down the action. There are a few exciting bits, some peril, and Elma gets the chance to save the day (with paper and pencil!), so the novel easily kept me interested as our heroes attempted to save humanity. Some issues, such as the race and feminist angle felt a little heavy-handed and could have been subtler, but it seemed like Kowal wanted to make sure readers understood what she was saying.

Ultimately this is a human-interest story, where we follow the experience of one woman and how she deals with the stresses of her everyday life. Of the most interest to me is the relationship between Elma and Nathanial. It was easy to see why they loved each other and I liked how they supported and communicated with each other. Sometimes I thought it was a little too perfect, but with all the stress that surrounds Elma’s life, it’s good to see that she has a safe place to be herself and be understood. Her strong marriage allowed the real tension in the story to be outside their romantic relationship. Her relationship with her family and the interactions surrounding that were sweet and evocative. There are also the women involved in the space program, from computers, to astronaut wives, to a journalist. All of them felt genuine, different, and added depth to the story.

Some readers may be disappointed that this book doesn’t address the broader issues inherent in the situation about the meteorite and the resulting fallout. And while all that is an important fuel of the plotline, ultimately this is about the very real and every day issues that the affected people will experience.

  • Recommended Age: 13+
  • Language: A handful
  • Violence: Peril inherinit in natural disasters and rockets blowing up
  • Sex: Foreplay between a married couple

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