Review of The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Calculating Stars
by Mary Robinette Kowal
How much did I love The Calculating Stars? When I picked this up at Chapters, I didn’t realize that its sequel was already out! So when I finished this on the evening of December 28, I was very tempted to rush out and buy that sequel right away. But Chapters was closing in 20 minutes, so I waited until the next day, and then I bought The Fated Sky with the intention of making it my first read of 2019, because I love starting off the year with a book I’m certain to enjoy. I was pretty sure I would like The Calculating Stars, but it did more, surprising me with the rich layers that Mary Robinette Kowal manages to fit into what is actually quite a short novel.
Trigger warnings in this novel for moments of extreme social anxiety related to public speaking and consequent anxiety attacks.
Elma York (née Wexler) is a computer for NACA in 1952, when a meteorite strikes off the coast of the United States and triggers what will eventually be an extinction-level event. This accelerates international plans for space travel. Elma’s husband, Nathaniel, is the lead engineer for the International Aerospace Coalition, and the two of them work together closely. But in addition to her love of crunching numbers like nobody’s business, Elma loves flying. A WASP during the war, she yearns to join the fledgling astronaut corps. Except, you know, blatant sexism stands in her way.
The novel opens with the kind of in media res disaster sequence a Michael Bay film would kill for: deadly earthquakes, a daring escape along a highway, a shockwave that totals your car, and then flying a prop plane through flaming ejecta only to have to manage a crash landing just short of the air base. Wow! From there, Kowal wastes no time getting us into the thick of things, establishing that there is a ticking clock thanks to the accelerated climate change: humanity needs to go to space. From there, this mission becomes the background plot while the novel focuses on Elma’s personal struggles.
What elevates The Calculating Stars for me is just how complex Kowal manages to make her main character. It’s one thing to write someone as a firebrand feminist who doesn’t take “no” for an answer, stands up for herself, and keeps making noise until she makes some history. Kowal throws in all these layers of nuance, though, providing Elma with plenty of flaws and missteps, that help avoid turning her into a larger-than-life type of heroine. Elma is unabashedly feminist in the sense that she believes women can do, and should be allowed to do, anything that men can. Yet this novel is, in many ways, her own personal journey towards becoming a revolutionary.
For example, there is a memorable scene where Nathaniel tells her in confidence that her public efforts to agitate for women joining the astronaut corps has started to have an effect, and the IAC Director is embarrassed. Elma’s first reaction is, “I’ll stop doing what I’m doing if it’s making trouble for you.” It’s not that she thinks, as a wife, she has a duty to submit to her husband and make things easier for him—rather, she cares for this person she loves deeply and would rather quash her own aspirations than harm him. Fortunately, she has a good ally in Nathaniel.
Similar nuance is evident in how Kowal deals with intersections of race, ethnicity, and gender. The Calculating Stars receives a lot of comparisons to Hidden Figures, and I totally get why. I think it’s important not to compare these books too directly, however, for two reasons: firstly, the latter is non-fiction, a chronicle of what actually happened, whereas this novel is alternative history; secondly, the latter is the story of Black women, told by a Black woman, which is definitely not happening here. Elma is Jewish and white; hence, she experiences oppression (and this is just after WWII, and Kowal has some excellent moments addressing the aftermath of the Holocaust) but she also experiences privilege compared to Black women. There are numerous moments, big and small, in the book where Elma, as a white lady, steps in it. As a result of her privilege, she fails to consider the barriers that women of colour might face that she doesn’t. It takes her a long time to become more intersectional in how she approaches her fight for women’s rights in astronaut training, and even by the end of the book, she certainly isn’t perfect.
In this way, I love the portrayal of Elma. Kowal gives us a protagonist who is idealistically in the right but occasionally, in practice, in the wrong. It’s wonderful to watch her learn from her mistakes. Similar to the issues of race and gender, there’s a subplot involving taking medication for anxiety. Again, Kowal has Elma start off in one place, with one type of attitude towards this, and then she changes her mind over the course of the book. She isn’t the only one like this either. The principal antagonist, Stetson Parker, is a boorish, groping jerk who does his best to foil Elma’s astronaut dreams—yet he is far from a moustache-twirling villain or misogynistic stereotype; again, there are layers and nuance to his personality that make him far more believable and enjoyable to read. Finally, Kowal makes sure to give us a plethora of personalities among the women Elma meets. Some of them are enthusiastic about her plans from the start; others take time to win over as allies. Still others throw in with Elma only as far as it aligns with their personal goals. It’s almost as if having a multitude of women in one’s book means that one can give them different motivations and none has to speak for all womankind!
I read “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” years back when it was nominated (and then won) a Hugo award. I liked it! I had no idea that Kowal would take this universe and spin it out into a duology, yet here we are, and I’m really glad she did. Over the past few years, some cranky misogynistic and racist people have jumped aboard a “Sad Puppies” train and complained that “SJWs” (“social justice warriors”) have hijacked science fiction and fantasy, “ruining” their pure and good stories with awful attempts at politically correct fiction. This, of course, is utter hogwash—there has always been plenty of good, socially progressive science fiction around, much of it written by marginalized authors. The Calculating Stars, more than many science fiction novels I’ve read in a while, admirably demonstrates that the divide between “hard” and “soft” SF is bogus, gate-keeping malarkey, and that socially-conscious science fiction can definitely have a compelling story. This is a novel that features a woman doing equations in her head and fighting for social justice. This is the type of science-fiction story I want to be reading. Bring it on.