Excellent short novelette from Mary Robinette Kowal about having to choose between having children and striking out amongst the stars. Except it isn’t about that at all. It’s about having to choose between watching your husband die, slowly and with less dignity every day, and striking out amongst the stars. Or maybe it’s about growing old, and the way the old are manipulated and treated, trotted out like icons from a fading past. Or perhaps it’s how women are held up against an impossible measuring stick: you need to have a career, have children, be beautiful, be dignified, be smart, be compliant….
Well, this is sounding complex for a 19-page story!
That’s the wonderful thing about “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”: it’s complex without requiring much effort. Kowal doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of how humanity colonizes Mars. We’re there, Elma is there, and she has a choice to make. Kowal fleshes this out by exploring Elma’s past and her motivations and using that to cast light on how she can make this choice. It’s a situation where there is no easy, no right answer. Either way she will feel like she is losing something, giving something up, in order to gain or even just maintain the status quo. Such is life: the making of impossible choices.
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” delivers everything a novelette should. It’s a smart and fast-paced narrative that makes it easy to keep reading. At the same time, as I said above, it has layers of complexity. Elma becomes a fully-realized, three-dimensional character. The secondary characters, such as her husband Nathaniel, are understandably less developed but still important and interesting. It says a lot about this future that Nathaniel is being cared for the way he is. We’ve managed to make it to Mars, but confronting end-of-life care is something that remains difficult and daunting.
This is a powerful story that harnesses some of the best qualities of science fiction: its ability to make a reader think in new ways about everyday parts of our existence. It has a retro feel, with talk of rockets and programmers and tapes and punch cards, but the problems Kowal explores are still present in the modern world, and they will dog us all the way to Mars.