If it feels like just yesterday that I read The Calculating Stars, that’s because it practically was! I seldom read sequels so close together, but once in a while I manage to buy them at the same time. In this case, I rushed out and bought The Fated Sky the weekend after I finished the first book and very deliberately made this my first book of 2019—I like to start my reading year off with something I know I will enjoy.
Part of me really just wants to say: what I said in my review of The Calculating Stars, but more so. Honestly: at first I was worried the book would feel too similar to the first one, and so I wouldn’t like it as much. Fortunately, Mary Robinette Kowal nails the balance of having the same atmosphere yet with a very different plot.
It’s a couple years after the events of the first book. Elma finds herself assigned to the IAC’s first crewed Mars mission, although the decision to do so ruffles many a feather. But it’s a politically savvy move to have the “Lady Astronaut” on the mission, even as racial tensions and other tensions flare up commensurate with the flares in Earth’s temperature. Eventually, the mission gets underway, and the bulk of the book is spent aboard the Nina, in transit to Mars. With communication with Earth only possibly via teletype, the crew of the Nina and its sister ship, the Pinta, are very isolated. They must conquer the challenges caused not just by the environment of space itself but by the interpersonal conflicts that are always going to arise in such a long-duration mission.
This isn’t really a book about going to space, or even about going to Mars. Kowal certainly provides an interesting look some of the things that might happen to a pair of crews travelling to Mars. Really, though, the space travel is just an excuse. This is a book about racism and sexism, about race and gender relations, about knowing when to lead and when to follow.
Once again, Kowal gives us a flawed protagonist that many of us should recognize in ourselves. Elma is well-meaning in all her actions, yet she constantly screws stuff up, because her privilege and experiences mean that she doesn’t always understand how intent doesn’t necessarily equal consequence. She makes a lot of mistakes, and more importantly, she learns from those mistakes. I also like that Elma’s learning and the apologies that accompany it don’t always equal the people she has wronged immediately changing their minds and liking her—that wouldn’t be realistic. Sometimes you screw things up, and it means people are going to take longer to forgive you, or maybe never forgive you. The interpersonal dynamics on this mission are so good because every person’s attitude towards Elma is unique. Like her, love her, hate her, indifferent to her—she has a real and different relationship with everyone aboard.
In particular, if you were a fan of the interactions between Stetson Parker and Elma, then boy howdy, hang on to your hat for this book. Kowal just kicks that into overdrive, and again, I love the three-dimensionality of Parker’s antagonism.
I also really like the relationship between Elma and Nathaniel. Earlier in the book, when she is debating whether or not to accept the offer to join the Mars mission, Nathaniel helps her talk through it. He asks her what she would be doing if she didn’t go. She’s thinking of having children. But that would mean quitting her job (ahhhh, the sexism of the 1960s), and then she would do various charitable things, and then she would be … unhappy, she realizes. It’s a poignant scene made all the more poignant by Nathaniel’s unconditional acceptance of her desire to go, despite the three-year absence it will mean. It takes a lot of strength to let someone you love go and do their thing even when it means you’re going to miss them. I know I’ve wrestled (and continue to wrestle) with this—but Nathaniel and I know that you can’t ask or tell someone to compromise their dreams just so they’re closer to you, because the person who stays is going to be a more bitter version of the person you love. And if you love someone, you should want them to grow and succeed and flourish on their terms, not yours.
So after I stopped crying from that little moment of heartfelt resonance, I kept on reading the book. And it is a delight.
Here’s the thing about the spacey stuff: so many people—so many people—practically orgasmed over the technical details in The Martian and, to a lesser extent, Artemis (or maybe you literally orgasmed—no judgment). Fair enough; the level of technical detail is impressive. But, in my opinion, Andy Weir’s writing style isn’t much to write home about. It’s competent, but his characterization leaves much to be desired. The Fated Sky delivers a comparable level of technical veracity in how Kowal depicts the voyage to Mars. However, I vastly prefer Kowal’s writing style. It’s smoother; the characterization is far deeper; the story itself is more interesting in its structure and substance.
All this is to say that you can have technical verisimilitude and a good story, and as I have said time and again, good story is always going to be more important than the former for me.
I’m ambivalent about the epilogue, honestly. I would have been happy enough with the book ending before that. Maybe I need to re-read “The Lady Astronaut on Mars.” Anyway, it isn’t bad—it just feels quite tacked on, a very obvious postscript to the rest of the adventure, yet it does little for me from an emotional point of view.
Definitely read The Calculating Stars before you read this one. Theoretically you could just jump into this one, but I don’t recommend it. These two books are a close-knit duology, and if you like the first one, you’ll need this second one for closure. What a fun two-book reading experience.