Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Calculating Stars

Mary Robinette Kowal
Completed 9/7/2019, Reviewed 9/10/2019
4 stars

I was really impressed by this book.  It deals with sexism and racism in a 1950’s alt-history post-apocalyptic setting.  It was tight, fast paced, and well-written with a marvelous female lead.  I read this book on vacation and was listening to “Lucifer’s Hammer” on the road, which has a similar apocalyptic scene.  The books have some similarities, and a couple of times, I got the characters confused.  But while that book is a disaster novel, this book is more focused on the social issues of the day, with the disaster acting as a backdrop.  However, the disaster part of the book was one of the best I’ve ever read, being a small-scale narrative rather than trying to explain all the global details.  Kowal won both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards for this.

Dr. Elma York is a brilliant mathematician and WWII pilot.  She is with her husband Nathaniel in the Poconos when a meteor slams into Washington, D.C.  Most of the rest of her family is in D.C. and on the coast in Charleston and are wiped out.  She and her husband escape by small plane to a military base in Kansas which becomes the new capital.  There she discovers that the earth will experience climate events, first a global winter followed by a runaway greenhouse effect.  This discovery prompts the U.S. government to form an international effort to get people into space to begin colonizing other planets, as the earth slowly becomes uninhabitable.  Elma believes she has what it takes to be an astronaut, but meets intense opposition in the new space program.  While working as a computer (one who performs calculations) for the space program, she begins a crusade to get women including women of color who are qualified to be accepted as astronauts. 

The book is told in first person by Elma.  She is a great character with lots of guts and ambition.  She has one fatal flaw and that is she has terrible stage fright anxiety.  She freaks out and vomits whenever she must speak publicly or to a large group.  She has to deal with the social taboo of seeking help in this 1950’s world of unenlightenment on mental illness.  So in addition to sexism and racism, she has to fight that as well.  It makes for a wonderfully well-drawn character.  I really felt Elma’s drive to become an astronaut, despite everything that was blocking her.

Nathaniel, her husband, is also well done.  He was the lead engineer for U.S. aeronautics program and becomes the lead engineer for the international space program.  He’s great, almost too perfect, as the supportive husband, who is completely understanding of her and her issues.  But he does act as the foil to the misogynistic Stetson Parker, the bigoted and sexist lead astronaut of the program.  Parker is mostly a charicature until the second half of the book when he shows his humanity.  There are other women in the story who also fight for the right to become astronauts as well, but they take a back seat to Elma’s narrative. 

The disaster part of the book, the beginning, is really well written.  It doesn’t cover the details of the meteor slamming into D.C., but instead describes the shock wave and earthquakes that affect our main character.  So unlike “Lucifer’s Hammer”, it’s smaller scale in its disaster description, but it’s very effective.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The character development and plot are wonderful, and the writing is marvelous.  I was enrapt in the book, despite sometimes getting confused with “Lucifer’s Hammer”.  I haven’t read the other Nebula and Hugo winners, so I don’t know if it deserved to win, but it definitely deserved the nominations.  As a side note, this book is the first in a duology and there are other short pieces which are part of the story.  I’ve pretty much decided I’ll read all it eventually. 

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