The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the sequel to The Calculating Stars. I've read that the story was originally supposed to be all one book, but the author asked that it be split in two. This was an inspired decision, as I can't imagine trying to cram both stories into one book. Even the covers reflect the difference: blue for the first book and the launch to the moon, and red for this one and the First Mars Expedition.
Our core characters, the married couple Nathaniel and Elma York, engineer and human computer/astronaut respectively, return. Set in 1961, a decade after the first book, there is a thriving colony on the moon and training has begun for the mission to Mars. Elma is a self-described "glorified bus driver," shuttling people around on the moon. But there are rumblings on Earth, people denying the coming catastrophe of climate change after this alternate history's meteor strike (shades of today, minus the meteor), and to ward off the defunding of the space program, Elma York, the famous Lady Astronaut, is added to the Mars mission.
The First Mars Expedition is the focus of this book, spelled out in gritty, obviously highly-researched detail. If you've never thought through the nasty ramifications of an E. coli infection in space...let's just say this book will teach you many things. Mary Robinette Kowal captures perfectly the beauty and horror of space travel, the fragility of little tin boxes traveling 34 million miles to Mars, and the audacity of the human race to think they could even pull off such a thing.
One of the themes of the first book was 1950's sexism, and Elma's struggle to have herself and other women added to the astronaut program. Since this book is set in the early 60's, with this alternate history's Civil Rights Movement in full bloom, the focus here shifts to racism. Elma may be sensitive to double standards and sexist slights, but she's still a clueless white woman in terms of race, as the book aptly points out. There's some nice growth for Elma as well as the other characters, including Stetson Parker, a carryover from the first book. Stetson in particular is shown to be far more complex than he was given credit for, even though he's still quite the ass. And of course the heart of the series remains the mature, supportive relationship between Elma and Nathaniel, as the two of them decide not to have children so Elma can join the First Mars Expedition.
I just love both these books to pieces, and wholeheartedly recommend them. I've heard the author plans to write more in this series, and I can only say, Please! I will read them as fast as she puts them out.
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