Friday, 2 November 2018

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is a book that I had heard a lot of good things about before I picked it up. I probably should have given in to my friends’ urging and read it sooner but I was a little bogged down in review books and other things. And it’s not as though I put it off for that long.

On a cold spring night 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 the 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 calculator. 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.

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.

The Calculating Stars is set in an alternate history universe in which the space programme is accelerated and follows a woman who is married to the lead engineer of the space agency, has a PhD herself and is a pilot who wants to go into space one day. The story starts when a meteorite hits the earth and sets in motion a series on problems, starting with killing everyone in Washington DC and along most of the Northern American eastern seaboard and ending with crucial changes to the earths climate. Elma and Nathaniel are positioned closely to the people in power and play a pivotal role in the post-meteorite world, making them very interesting characters to follow.

The post-meteorite world, however, is still the 1950s with all the cultural baggage that entails. There are high barriers for women participating in the work force (even when they are already trusted to work as computers) and even higher barriers for people of colour. A lot of the story involves Elma bumping up against the glass ceiling and her friends coming up against similar or worse obstacles. The depictions of misogyny were very frustrating to read at times and when they weren’t it was only because some of the characters were darkly joking about them. The plight of the black characters was less prominent (since the story was told in first person) but more present than it could have been, which was good to see.

I enjoyed this book a lot, even after making the mistake of starting it the night before an early morning (oops). Despite a busy week without much free time I read it quickly and now I am very keen to start the sequel. The Calculating Stars doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger but it certainly ends before the whole story is told. Luckily these two books were released in close succession and I don’t have to wait for the sequel to become available. I highly recommend The Calculating Stars to all fans of science fiction and particularly of the early space programme and the role of women therein (not all of which is fictionalised in the book). I expect fans of Hidden Figures will find much to like here, although there is much less focus on the black characters.

5 / 5 stars

First published: July 2018, Tor
Series: yes. Book 1 of 2 so far (with two more planned)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from Apple Books

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