|The Fated Sky is the sequel to a book I mostly enjoyed (The Calculating Stars) but my enjoyment of this Hugo award-winning novel was leavened with some qualms and niggling concerns. While I liked getting to know the main character Elma York and was thrilled with the prominent appearance of mathematical concepts like the Fibonacci series and prime numbers, there always seemed to be “something off” about the ethos of the first book. The premise is very clever: suppose the Space Race started a decade earlier due to an external animating force caused by a cataclysmic event which makes the necessity of humanity colonizing the solar system more urgent because the Earth will become increasingly more inhospitable in the next century. This time shift means that the social tensions based around race and gender that actually happened in our 1960s and 1970s occur in the book’s timeline of the 1950s in the context of the Space Race.|
The main character, Elma York, is a white Jewish woman who is something of a mathematical savant. She and her husband Nathaniel get jobs with the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC). She becomes a celebrity as the “Lady Astronaut” and thus is given leeway to break barriers and violate cultural mores without repercussions someone of her status would be expected to suffer.
In the first book it was somewhat titillating to see these issues addressed (even awkwardly and somewhat ineptly) in the context of a speculative fiction novel but on further reflection I don’t think the overall result is positive and this becomes increasingly clear in the second book.
The problem for me with both The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky is that in most social situations the reader is more aware of the racial or cultural implications than Elma is. This device of Elma’s cluelessness is one that the author uses to demonstrate the illogic of discrimination and animus repeatedly to the reader.
I would argue that while the author uses the device effectively she also repeats and frequently re-inscribes racist and sexist tropes (inadvertently, I think) while trying to illustrate how wrong these are to the reader.
In The Fated Sky there are numerous examples of this problem. For example, Elma is on a ship to Mars with 4 men and 3 women when she finds a (used) condom. Of course she assumes that one of the men (probably the captain, whom she has a very difficult relationship with and is a known philanderer) is forcing himself on one of the other women (both of whom are women of color). It doesn’t even occur to her that it could be evidence of sexual activity between two of the men! But there are numerous problem with this scenario. 1) (why) would 2 (presumably straight) men having sex on a 3-year space journey be using condoms (especially in an era where contraception was basically illegal and HIV/AIDS didn't exist)? 2) why would an allegedly intelligent astronaut not know to not throw a condom away in the toilet and cause a disruptive plumbing incident? 3) why would the author later kill off one of the gay characters in a freak accident? Does the author not know about the vicious trope of the doomed homosexual who always dies before the end of the story? Despite revealing society’s homophobia through Elma’s cluelessness the author has reproduced it through her treatment of the two male characters who loved (in multiple senses of the word) each other. While it is true by martyring one of the gay characters she raises the profile of the remaining gay character but there's no way to dispel the conclusion that by having a freak fatal accident occur to one of the gay characters is a re-enactment of the "doomed homosexual" trope.
There are (many) other examples of how the author does this in The Fated Sky with both gender and race (Elma is sometimes quick to notice and call out patriarchal/sexist behavior but then some of her favorite and most lauded activities involve her prowess in the kitchen!) One interesting aspect of the book that is a highlight, is the portrayal of multiple Jewish celebrations (even in space!). The sensitivity by which a minority religion is portrayed is incongruous to how ethnic and racial minorities are depicted. For example, race is the primary fault line in the time being portrayed in the books but as I have said before, the author uses the main character's outsider status to illustrate to the reader how ignorance/unfamiliarity with the lived experience of others can highlight the salience and pervasiveness of racism and sexism. But the problem is that these encounters are only ever presented to the reader through Elma's perspective, which tends to marginalize the agency of the characters who are racial (and ethnic) minorities.
Overall, I was somewhat dubious about reading the second book in the series after reflecting more on the deficiencies of the first (which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel). But the large number and the high average Goodreads ratings of both books convinced me to give it a try despite these misgivings. It's unlikely I will make that mistake with the third book!
Title: The Fated Sky.
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal.
Paperback: 384 pages.
Publisher: Tor Books.
Date Published: October 1, 2018.
Date Read: April 21, 2020.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★★☆☆ (3.0/5.0).
OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).