The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I adored “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” so I was very excited to see a novel about Elma’s earlier life. I nearly bought a copy of The Calculating Stars three times while circling the bookshop at Readercon but passed on it to purchase American Hippo instead (absolutely no regrets; you can read my review of how much I enjoyed American Hippo here).
I also wasn’t impressed by the quality of the materials used in the trade paperback hard copy. The cover curled and the paper felt cheap. The $18 cover price seemed too high. I know the higher price offsets the direct-to-paperback loss of hardcover sales, but I don’t like to buy chintzy books because I tend to keep them for a long time. So, when The Calculating Stars went on sale for Kindle for $2.99, I purchased immediately.
I was not disappointed by this book- it was fabulous. A League of Their Own meets Hidden Figures, The Calculating Stars is an alternate history of the 1950s and 60s space race in a time of accelerated global warming that necessitates off-world colonization, with a large and diverse cast of smart women all based on real historical people, fighting their way to the role of astronauts. In the real history of NASA’s voyages to the stars, women got men into space. Women were the mathematicians (called computers) behind the trajectories and engineering of space shuttles and lunar modules, doing the calculations by hand that early electronic computers were too slow and unreliable to do. Women also flew just about every kind of plane all over the place during WWII in the WASP program. Like women in the military today, the story that gets told is that these women didn’t go into combat, so it was never dangerous or difficult, but then and now, that’s a lot of bullshit.
Elma is a former WASP and a computer, a Doctor of Mathematics, married to a rocket engineer who is supportive and acknowledges her intelligence, talents, and ambitions. She has anxiety and struggles with whether or not to take medication and what people might think if they knew. She likes her work as a computer, but desperately wants to go to space, to the moon, to Mars. Elma is such a well-crafted character. In a brief description she sounds too perfect: smart accomplished woman with perfect marriage has one tragic flaw to overcome on her way to destroying the patriarchy and achieving her dreams! But she’s so much more complex than that, with little nuances and asides. She loses most of her family, constantly forgets about and then is reminded of her white privilege as the women of color around her suffer from racism, struggles with the lingering effects of being a girl and then a woman who moves through life outshining men and is bullied and traumatized to boost fragile male egos. She’s also Jewish, and grapples with the legacy of the Holocaust and the loss of her own family line among thousands of lost Jewish families. This story may be alternate history, but it is very grounded in its time and place. Elma does not destroy the patriarchy on her way to achieving her dreams. She eats a lot of shit, grits her teeth and smiles through it, because she knows she is building a better future.
The focus on global warming and society’s attitude toward it, is very timely. Sadly, so is the racism and sexism. Decades of advancement, and we haven’t come as far as Elma would hope. I’m looking forward to escaping into the world of the sequel, The Fated Sky, to spend some time in a hopeful fantasy of a better tomorrow.