The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Updated: Jun 1
I think I read The Lady Astronaut of Mars two years ago, and was totally enthralled. It was a short story and I'd picked it up because of Mary Robinette Kowal's work on the Writing Excuses podcast. That was also how I heard about that short story becoming part of a longer series involving two prequel novels, The Calculating Stars and its sequel, The Fated Sky. What really got me interested, however, was Kowal's interview on Stuff You Missed in History Class.
So, the whole Lady Astronaut story is essentially a sci-fi drama set in the 1950's. While in the mountains, pilot and computer Alma York and her husband, NACA engineer Nathaniel barely survive a catastrophic meteor strike which essentially wipes out the eastern sea board of the United States. This however, is only the beginning of the fall out, and suddenly the entire world finds itself in a space race against time.
The Calculating Stars is the story of Alma's efforts, not only to get man into space, but also woman. Faced with the rampant sexism and racism of that time, Alma and her fellow pilots have to fight nearly tooth and nail for recognition, let alone to be allowed to train for space missions or pilot aircraft.
Science-Fiction or Historical Fiction?
While the alternative history line of the story definitely makes it science-fiction, it definitely doesn't read that way a lot of the time. It's not fantastical, it almost reads like an actual astronaut biography. Kowal does such a good job immersing you in the setting that you might forget much of the meat of the narrative never happened.
A lot of research and care went into the Lady Astronaut series, you can tell, not only from the quality of the world building but also from the acknowledgements and bibliography that come attached. I also found from listening to the Writing Excuses podcast and following her on twitter that she interviewed actual astronauts and pilots extensively to really nail down the details and give everything that ring of truth.
Oh my god, just the amount of infuriating stuff the women training to be astronauts have to put up with is incredible. I'm not going to go into all of them here, but they range from photo spreads where they powder their noses in fighter jets to having to wear bikinis during water crash testing.
The sexism is totally rampant and just everywhere. Don't even get me started on Alma's rival, Stetson Parker! I get rageous just thinking about him. But, that said, he's got to be one of the best "bad guys" I've read in quite some time. I think most women will recognize him and love to hate him. He and Alma are the perfect opposition for each other though, and you will not get bored by their story line.
The Rare Healthy, Loving Relationship
Did I mention that our heroine, Alma, is married? Yes! It is true! This is the rare genre fiction story where the main character is not falling in love or breaking up, but in a steady, healthy romantic relationship (with sex and everything). Alma and Nathaniel's relationship is refreshing in that, they talk to each other, know each other well, have conversations about things other than themselves and a generally a normal, if not realistic, married couple. And they aren't the only ones! Their friends, the Hilliards, are also happily married and have a loving, functional relationship. As a married person myself, it's nice to see not every main character as single, or in a melodramatic love affair.
Overall, I found this an engaging, heartwarming, exciting read. Wait until you get to the end! I laughed, I cried, I laughed again, all from the edge of my seat!
What's it Like?
Imagine if the book Rise of the Rocket Girls and Deep Impact got together in all the best ways.
Bechdel Test: Pass