The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m always excited to see what new ideas Kowal comes up with. I quite enjoyed her magical Regency series The Glamourist Histories. And on my TBR list, I have Ghost Talkers, a book about mediums of WWI who aid in the war by talking to the ghosts of men who have just died.

I love how she takes the ordinary and spins it just so very slightly, in a way that is so believable and enchanting.

But The Calculating Stars may be my favourite of her books so far.

At first I thought it would simply be a book about a woman heading into space. The series is titled Lady Astronaut after all.

But it is so much more than that.

What happens if a meteorite crashes onto Earth and obliterates much of Eastern US? Besides the many deaths and immediate problems (DC is gone for instance), it eventually becomes clear to scientists that this is an extinction event and the climate consequences that are to follow will likely spell doom for humankind. It is 1952 though and space travel is still merely an idea. But this event immediately propels countries like the US to start space programs.

Elma York is a mathematician and a pilot. But those who run the space program do not think women – or as a matter of fact, anyone who’s not white – can make it in space.

The administration says space is too dangerous for women and the women are relegated to computer jobs. But Elma doesn’t give up. She starts a campaign to show that women are as capable as the men going into space, putting publicity to work for her by going on a kids’ TV show, setting up an all-women airshow – all while desperately battling crippling anxiety.

I love how Elma is so determined to fight for her place on the team. And I appreciate how Kowal writes Elma as being ignorant (and eventually realizing her ignorance) about how other ethnicities are being treated. If it’s difficult for her to get on the program, it is many times more so for the women of color aspiring to be astronauts.

“Around us, women circulated in a susurration of crinoline and starched cotton. Not a single one was black. And the longer I stood there, the clearer it became that Maggie was the only person who wasn’t white.”

Eventually she does get chosen (I’m hoping this isn’t a spoiler) and one of the first things the women have to do is work with a stylist to select wardrobe and hair for the announcement event.

And it is incredibly infuriating for her when they have to do advanced pilot training…in little blue bikinis and in front of the press.

“After spinning in the pool, I turned to face the photographers and waved at them. A record? No. Even if I’d been fast, it was because the variables weren’t the same as under normal test conditions.

But that was science and science wasn’t what they wanted from me.”

What an absolute stunner of a book. I read it not long before I learnt of the news that the first-ever all-female spacewalk had to be canceled because the spacesuit didn’t fit and it would take too long to get a different size ready. According to an article I read, a 2003 study already had found that 8 of the 25 women astronauts at the time couldn’t fit into the available space suits (while of course all the men could). It’s taken many steps for humans to get into space and even more leaps for women to get there. And I love that there’s a book like this that imagines an alternate history yet also reflects the current state of the world today.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this! I absolutely could not put it down once I started reading. Kowal does such a good job creating her worlds and this one is particularly detailed and compelling. I have some slightly mixed feeling about how Elma’s awakening to the discrimination faced by women of other ethnicities is handled in both this book and the next one – a bit too explanatory, a bit too neat and a bit too 21st century in attitudes all around – but I do love that Kowal made it an important part of her story.

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