Series: Lady Astronaut #1
Published by Tor on July 3, 2018
Genres: Alt-History, Science Fiction
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Also in this series: The Relentless Moon
Also by this author: Shades of Milk and Honey, The Relentless Moon
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 easily one of the best books I read last year. The story is gripping, the characters are depicted so vividly they could be standing in front of you, and the details, from the physics of an asteroid impact and the experience of piloting an aircraft to the chauvinism of many men involved in the space program, appear to be spot on.
The novel literally begins with a bang, as Elma and Nathaniel experience the first intimations of disaster when the meteor hits the East Coast, and then struggle to escape from the aftermath. The emotional impact of this section is visceral and heart-wrenching; more than once, I had tears in my eyes.
From there, it becomes a story of the international race against time to get into space, told through Elma’s journey from female computer to “Lady Astronaut.” Elma is a very relatable narrator. As a happily married career woman in an era when many women did not work, and a former WASP pilot at a time when female pilots were unusual, she bridges the gap between the reader’s experience of the modern world and the 1950s setting of the story. Elma’s belief in gender and racial equality resonates with issues still facing us today, yet she carries some of the subconscious racial biases that were endemic at the time (and still persist.) Part of what makes her admirable is her willingness to recognize and admit those biases and strive to become more aware, and to do what she can to open doors for others—women of color as well as white women. The NACA and IAC may not be diverse to begin with, but Elma is determined to change that.
For all her likableness, Elma is far from perfect. She’s occasionally too quick to judge others, and to mouth off when she dislikes someone. Her clashes with Spencer Parker, the IAC’s lead astronaut, show real (and to some extent warranted) antagonism on both sides, edged with a growing if grudging respect. And despite Elma’s self-confidence about her exceptional math skills, initially she lacks confidence to speak up for herself or for others. Confronting men in power is difficult for her; being the center of attention causes her severe anxiety. Kowal writes these scenes as if she herself is well-acquainted with anxiety and panic attacks. Though thankfully I don’t experience all the same symptoms Elma does, nor do I have the same triggers, my own experiences with anxiety made me deeply sympathetic with her situation, and the shame and guilt and fears that flow from it.
The novel’s secondary characters, from Elma’s husband Nathaniel to her friends and colleagues (particularly, but not limited to, the female computers and female pilots) are well-drawn. Like Elma, they come across as real and complicated human beings rather than stock, cardboard-cutout figures. Even minor characters feel individual, lacking depth only because their appearance is brief.
Speaking of Nathaniel, it’s so refreshing to see a happily-married main character! Elma and Nathaniel’s relationship is strong and mutually supportive, loving and intimate, but Elma is neither defined nor confined by their marriage—a rarity in the 1950s and ’60s. Their sex life clearly encompasses both passion and humor (the rocket analogies made me snicker), but just as evocative are the little day-to-day intimacies. Their marriage may not be the focus of the book, but both book and Elma herself are the better for it.
As for the novel’s plot, the pacing, story beats, and overall arc are just about perfect. I was totally immersed in the story as I listened, simultaneously eager to find out “what happens next,” and not wanting the story to end.
In addition to her writing, Kowal is a professional puppeteer and audiobook recorder. Her performance here, with its clear vocal characterizations and use of varied accents, only heightens the experience of the novel. Rarely did I have any difficulty distinguishing between character voices. Kowal conveys Elma’s emotions with consummate skill, evoking shadows of the same emotions in the listener. Sound effects are kept to a minimum, though dialog heard through headphones or speakers (as when Elma is listening to a copilot in a plane) has a slightly tinny, muffled sound suggestive of radio transmission. I found myself coming up with daily excuses to listen to an extra hour or two—the audiobook equivalent of a real page-turner.
The ending is satisfying (not a cliffhanger), but even so I was delighted that Tor decided to release the sequel only a month later, instead of the usual six months or a year. I finished The Calculating Stars and plunged immediately into The Fated Sky (review to come.) I strongly advise you to have book #2 waiting when you finish book #1!
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The Calculating Stars won the 2018 Nebula and 2019 Locus Awards, and is nominated for this year’s Hugo Award (to be decided in August at Worldcon in Dublin.) The novel was also a finalist for the 2019 Campbell Memorial Award.