July 15, 2018

Review: The Calculating Stars

The Calculating Stars The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is fantastic, and anyone who loved the book and/or movie Hidden Figures should snap this right up. It's an alternate history of the space race with even higher stakes: after an asteroid impact that wipes out Washington DC and most of the East Coast, humanity comes together to get off the Earth and establish colonies in space and on the Moon. This is necessary because (shades of what happened to the dinosaurs) the impact sets in motion what promises to be a probable extinction event, coming within the lifetimes of the people who survived it.

Unfortunately, this book takes place during the 1950s, with all the attendant racism and sexism. This comes bearing down on the shoulders of our protagonist, Elma York, a genius ex-World War II WASP pilot with PhDs in physics and mathematics. When the asteroid hits, she flies herself and her engineer husband, Nathaniel, out of the blast zone, and later on when calculating the size of the meteor for her husband, she realizes just what it will do. Elma and Nathaniel become involved with this alt-history version of NASA, the International Aerospace Coalition, which has the goal of putting humans on the moon in a few years (with a colony to follow), and Elma fights for herself and other women to be included in the astronaut program.

By necessity, this book has A LOT of technical jargon. (It is also impeccably and exhaustively researched, as the author's Historical Note and Bibliography show.) It takes a helluva writer to produce such a dense, technical book without infodumps and without sacrificing the momentum of the story. Mary Robinette Kowal is that writer; the story's pacing and readability never flags. But she is juggling many more plates in the air as well: the era's prejudices; the characters (Elma and Nathaniel are not kids; they have a mature, supportive relationship, and Kowal never resorts to the kneejerk reaction of making the heroine's husband jealous or possessive); the exposure and deconstruction of Elma's unthinking white privilege regarding people of color in such a scenario; and Elma's personal struggle with panic attacks. Any one of these things, if not handled properly, could have dragged the story to a halt. It never happens.

But more than that, this book brings the sensawunda that good science fiction should have, and brings it mightily. If the last chapter in the book, the launch of the Artemis 9 to the moon with Elma aboard, doesn't make you tear up a little, I don't know what to tell you. It's a lovely, triumphant ending, beautifully written, and this is one of the best books of the year.

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