Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Calculating Stars is an alternative history/sci-fi set in the 1950s US. A meteorite strikes the earth in 1952, killing millions. It soon becomes obvious that it’s only the beginning. Greenhouse effect will make sure that the earth will soon be uninhabitable. A new home for humans has to be found in the stars, and for that, the space programme has to be accelerated considerably.

The book is a first-person narrative by Elma York, a math genius who makes the initial calculations about the impending extinction of life on earth. Her husband is a rocket engineer and soon they are integral to the space programme. He designs rockets; she makes the calculations for space flights as a computer. But that’s not enough for her. She wants to become an astronaut. Only, in the 1950s America, women are best seen, not heard.

This book has a couple of different stories going on: the space programme, and the story of the emancipation of women and African Americans. It works better on the first level: the excitement of going to the space for the first time, and the heartbreak of inevitable setbacks. It tries very hard to work on the second level too. Elma is a product of her time and has clear notions of a woman’s place: she’s Mrs Nathaniel York first, not Dr Elma York, despite holding two PhDs and having worked as a pilot during the Second World War. Others have to point out to her that women have potential, or that African Americans are discriminated against at every turn. Even then she only functions as an unwitting catalyst for the change, and the big story happens outside the narrative, barely noticed by her. But since she is very determined to become an astronaut, she perseveres and forces herself through the obstacles set on her path.

The obstacles are nominal only. The narrative is very thin on emotion and especially emotional conflict. Every time a conflict of any kind begins to build, it’s solved fast and in the nicest possible manner, after which everyone are friends again. There is no conflict between Elma and Nathaniel, no matter how stressed out or angry they are. They constantly support and understand each other. It makes a happy read, but not a very interesting or exciting one. They’re both a bit dull, even with glimpses to Elma’s troubled past and her current anxiety issues.

The most interesting character turns out to be the ‘bad guy’, Stetson Parker, the first man in space. He hates Elma for the inexplicable reason that during the war she has prevented him from sexually harassing women, and states aloud that he’s going to do everything possible to prevent her from becoming an astronaut. He would be a caricature villain, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s given the most interesting story: a mysterious wife (I think she’s in an asylum) and an injury that almost prevents him from going to space ever again. Add to that that he’s occasionally very nice, and he makes the most complex and memorable character.

The narrative is episodic, offering small glimpses to what is going on in Elma’s life over six years. It’s heavy on facts concerning space travel and light on all other descriptions, like characters, places or emotions. But it still manages to work well enough to keep a reader’s interest from the beginning to the end.


After finishing the book I read The Lady Astronaut of Mars, a short story written years before the book. In it, Elma and Nathaniel are old people living in Mars. He’s dying and she’s offered one last mission in space. She doesn’t know what to do.

I’m glad that I read the short story after the book. It had everything I hoped the book would have: emotions and conflict. Both Elma and Nathaniel come off as real people, not characters, and I liked them much more than in the book. Since the story was written so long before the book, and was probably meant to be a stand-alone, the facts don’t quite align with those in the book, but that didn’t matter. It was an excellent story and made me wish there would be similar grit in the book too.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal