Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Also by this author: Ghost Talkers
Published by Tor Books on July 3, 2018
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.
The Calculating Stars is an alternate history with a very strong female protagonist that is pushing the gender boundaries of her time. The premise is that a meteorite struck there earth with catastrophic consequences.The initial destruction was obvious, as it wiped out much of the east coast, either from the initial impact or the flooding that occurred after. However, our protagonist does some impressive calculations and determines that what they’ve seen so far is nothing compared to what is to come. And with the most dire consequences set years down the road, convincing people to take the threat seriously can be a challenge (and likely even more so when you are a woman trying to do the convincing). There is a very real threat that the earth may not be inhabitable in the future, so Elma and others (including her engineer husband), work on a plan to start colonization outside of earth.
The thought of going into space is terribly exciting for Elma. She was a pilot in the war, part of the group of women trained to help shuttle aircraft around. It’s an elite group, but no where near equal standing to their male counterparts. The book deals with both racism and sexism and trying to break through boundaries to allow women and minorities to participate in roles previously reserved for white men. The role of astronaut is one of these roles, and logically for any colonization to live past the initial generation, they must include women. Sounds like a no brainer, right? Well, even with this, there is still a great deal of resistance.
Once again, Kowal displays her skill at setting a strong atmosphere for a historical setting. The 1950s in this story may differ from our own history, but it still very much captures the time period in a way that feels effortless on Kowal’s part. Meaning, as a reader I just get it without noticing the process, which is wonderful because then everything remains about the story.
I love Elma’s personality. She has a true love of math and has a very impressive talent in the area, able to do complex calculations in her head at impressive speeds. Her weakness really is more on the social side of things. She suffers from anxiety, but not from the pressures of being a pilot or having to quickly calculate the best trajectory given conditions and fuel. Math is actually calming for her, it centers her and keeps her focused. Ask her to talk to reporters or put her on the spot with a group of observers, then she can panic to the point of making herself ill. I am not to either extreme as Elma, but I have always loved math, and do find it calming, and I find people stressful, so I really relate to her.
Overall I felt this was a very enjoyable read. In the beginning I was a bit concerned that some of the messages might feel a bit heavy handed, but as the story progressed, and I became more invested, I quickly forgot about that and everything became about the characters and the story. If you enjoyed Kowal’s other books, I do recommend this. It’s different from Glamourist Histories, maybe not quite a light or fun, but still engaging with a wonderful historical feel.