Mary Robinette Kowal
Completed 9/3/2020, Reviewed 9/4/2020
This is the first sequel to The Calculating Stars in The Lady Astronaut series. It takes place several years after the events of the first book. It took me a little while to get into it, but after about fifty pages, I was gripped. It’s still in the alternative history of an international space program, this time in the early ‘60s, after the eastern seaboard of the US has been nearly wiped out by an asteroid collision. The climate is changing, a base has been built on the Moon and the race is on to colonize Mars. And it is told from the point of view of Elma, known worldwide as the Lady Astronaut. I liked this book about as much as its predecessor. I thought it was a little melodramatic after the opening sequence, but the trip to Mars was really well done, fraught with peril, and suspenseful.
Elma has just come back from the Moon base after three months. The ship bringing them home lands about 270 miles off target. They are boarded by “Earth Firsters” who hold them hostage. Elma and Helen convince them to let everyone else go and keep Elma to be their spokesperson, giving their demands to the press. Eventually, the Firsters are subdued and everyone returns home. Because of her publicity with handling the Firsters, and because after all, she is the Lady Astronaut, she is asked to join first team going to Mars. She struggles with the idea of being away from her husband Nathaniel for three years, and postponing starting a family. She acquiesces, but then finds out her coming on kicked a friend of hers off the mission. This causes tension between her and the crew. In addition, the mission is being led by Stetson Parker, the sexist pig from the first novel. She goes with them to Mars anyway. It being an international crew, the members are from several countries, including a white South African who doesn’t want to be on the same ship as two African-American astronauts and is not so keen on the Arab medic either. There being three ships going together on the mission, the solution is to have a whites-only ship. Needless to say, the issues of race and gender play a prominent role in the success or failure of the mission.
Elma is simply a terrific character. She’s very human, with disabling anxiety and doubts about leaving her husband and missing out on raising a family. She narrates the story in first person so we feel first-hand her stresses and conflicts. While she’s very progressive, she doesn’t get that she unwittingly can be condescending to the Leonard and Florence, the African-Americans on the crew. In a great scene, Leonard says to her “Don’t tell me what my experience is,” which really wakes her up. She still battles with Stetson Parker, but he does have an actual character arc in this novel. He’s not as much of a jerk as he was in the first book, but he’s still sexist. In fact, all the characters on Elma’s ship have good arcs. The only character who doesn’t is the South African who is simply a bad guy. But he does serve a purpose to exacerbate the very real tension between the races in the crew.
I was also impressed that there was a gay relationship in the crew. It was expected that there might be hookups in the crew on such a long journey, but the thought never crosses Elma’s mind until much later in the story. There’s also a transgender character which I completely missed until I read the Kowal’s notes at the end. But it did make sense when I sat back and reflected on it.
The only part that I thought was a little melodramatic was when Elma was debating going to Mars versus having a family. I thought it was a little soapy. In general, I thought the writing was very tight, but this part didn’t feel the same. But it brings up an important issue that women face in life. It’s a tougher choice here because it’s still the ‘60s in the story and there isn’t day care, and well, being en route to Mars without her husband for three years isn’t a day job.
I give this book four out of five stars. It was very nearly five stars. I know the trope of the flight to Mars has been done many times in the past, but putting it in the context of the racially, sexually, and homophobically turbulent ‘60s gave it a unique spin, as is having a main character with mental health issues. This is another series I’ll probably keep reading. I believe it’s the first duology in a planned pair of duologies featuring Elma. The third book is out and the fourth is forthcoming. I’m really looking forward to them.