|The Calculating Stars is the (Nebula and Locus) award-winning book by Mary Robinette Kowal about the 1950s space race but set in an alternate time line where a meteor hits the Earth near Chesapeake Bay, decimates the Eastern Seaboard and catalyzes the greenhouse effect, endangering human survival on Earth. The main character of The Calculating Stars is Elma York, a former WASP pilot and mathematical genius who ends up working as a “computer” for the International Aerospace Coalition, the space agency responsible for managing the race to the stars. The impetus behind the space race in this timeline is not a US-Russia proxy war but a race to get to space in order to save humanity before Earth becomes inhabitable due to the runaway global warming caused by the long range after-effects of the asteroid collision.|
One shorthand view of the book is that it is a version of “The Right Stuff” and "Hidden Figures" told from the perspective of a Jewish white woman who is obsessed with going into space but has to combat social conservatism and sexist mores in order to achieve her dream.
Elma is a fun character and it was fun to spend time with her. She has a pretty severe undiagnosed anxiety disorder; during episodes where this manifests as panic attacks she tries to get through by doing mathematics. For example, she will mentally recite the beginning of the list of prime numbers or the Fibonacci series or do 4-digit arithmetic operations in her head. Her husband, who is also Jewish, an engineer and eventually becomes her boss at the IAC, helps to distract/calm her down at times of stress (such as facing a room full of reporters). Elma becomes internationally known as “the Lady Astronaut” through her advocacy in the media of the idea that women should join the space program. This is an interesting SFnal twist because in real life no one but white men were considered by NASA to become astronauts in the equivalent time period (1950s to 1970s).
Although I like Elma I’m not as enamored with the book as a whole. Of course, as a black gay mathematics professor I’m in favor of the author’s depiction of the regimented/stilted mores of the 1950s and the spotlight she puts on the senselessness of the discrimination based on gender (and race) that occur(red) in such an important science/engineering enterprise. I also love the fact the story is infused with a love of mathematics and science/engineering and was intrigued that it is told from the perspective of a white Jewish woman. But for me there was a spark missing which prevented me from emotionally connecting with the story. I think this may be because ultimately the stakes are too low. Since this is an alternate timeline (caused by a very unlikely event) the overarching idea that the space race needs to be successful earlier in time in order to save humanity is not that compelling. And even though I want Elma to succeed at breaking barriers, she will/would be fine even if she didn’t go into space. So although I enjoyed spending time with Elma and love the centering of math and science in the rare context of a SFnal book which pays close attention to identity and positionality of its characters, I ended somewhat unmoved by The Calculating Stars. I admire it more than I adore it. However, I will most likely read the sequels in the trilogy because I am curious about how the story ends, and when that occurs with any first book, it must be considered a success. There's a reason why it is very likely to win the 2019 Hugo award for Best Novel in addition to its other accolades.
Title: The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1).
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal.
Paperback: 432 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published: July 3, 2018.
Date Read: July 20, 2019.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆ (4.0/5.0).
OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.83/4.0).