The Calculating Stars (Mary Robinette Kowal) is the first book of the Lady Astronaut series. It was published in 2018 and currently holds a 4.27 on Goodreads.
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.
Note: This is a review of the audiobook, voiced by the author, herself.
This was my first time reading an alt-history book, The concept has always been interesting to me, but I’ve never actually sat down and got to it. This was a really good one to star with. It’s not my favourite book ever, but it had a lot to offer – the end of the world, the fight for survival, hard science, space travel and intersectional feminism, all under the guise of a 1950s we are all familiar with.
Creative Handling of the 50s
I think what made this read so fascinating was the catharsis. It plays on the tension between what we know about the 50s and all of its problematic treatment of women, black people and jewish people, and it creates a world in which all of that has to be put aside for the greater good of humanity. The characters are dealing with an environmental crisis (essentially, global warming). The world is dying and space travel is the only answer. Scientists have to fight politicians on the matter; those who just simply don’t believe it. And once they finally get them on board, there’s still the issues of sexism and racism to contend with; because, let’s face it, Mars can’t be colonized solely by white men. Kowal’s way of handling alt-history was to make it a really creative way to think about some of our world’s greatest historical and contemporary issues, with all the fun 50s slang to lighten the mood.
One thing I did have trouble with was the main character, Elma. I understood clearly that she was living two identities, just as many women in the 50s would have been. On the one hand, she’s an intelligent person who is more than capable of assessing her surroundings. On the other hand, she’s riddled with insecurities, anxiety, and a strong desire to seem “proper.” I’m not saying that this character profile is unrealistic, but I felt the contrast between how she communicated in her head (as the narrator) and how she communicated outwardly, too stark. The tonal shifts were pretty drastic. Snarky and funny in her head, nervous and (almost) submissive out loud. There was some character growth which closed the gap a little, but for the most part, it felt like every time she spoke out loud she was being incredibly disingenuous about who she was and what she believed in. I might have been able to control the tone shifts better in my own head, but as I was listening to an audiobook, I had to accept them as they were delivered. And since the author herself was the one delivering the tones, I have to believe that’s how she intends them.
I also found the main character’s husband, Nathaniel, a little unbelievable. I think, even for an incredibly woke 50s man, he still felt as though he was written by a woman who was designing a PERFECT man. He has no faults, and ALWAYS says the right thing. Beautiful, but I definitely did some eye-rolling. I think he could have been developed better, and made a little more three-dimensional. I did love how strong their relationship was, though.
The ending is my final criticism. It felt as though it ended just a a paragraph or two shy of the perfect landing, which left me feeling a little cheated.
This was a fun listen. Kowal has an excellent performative voice and takes a whack at several accents. She also clearly has a lot of things to say about the so-called “simpler” time of the 50s, and I enjoyed hearing them all. I especially liked her approach to intersectionality. There was even a pretty diverse cast of characters, which is always welcoming to me.
I give this book a 3.5/5