Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Review: The Calculating Stars

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

This is my favorite Mary Robinette Kowal novel and the bar is set pretty darn high considering her prior work.

In this rousing alternate history of the space program, we follow Elma Wexler York, the protagonist of her 2014 Hugo award-winning novelette, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, back in the early days of the post-Meteor Era space program. The opening chapters of the book deal with an event hinted at in one of her prior short stories, We Interrupt this Broadcast, in which an asteroid punches through the earth's atmosphere, surviving to become a meteorite that will obliterate Washington DC. The Calculating Stars opens with this cataclysmic event, in which most of the Eastern US is devastated and the resultant magnitude of water vapor sets off a series of climate issues that promise to make the planet uninhabitable within a century. There is plenty of snazzy science (fiction) in this book but Kowal manages to capture the labor and tedium of the day to day work of scientists and engineers who move innovation forward out of necessity. Just as in the real-life stories in Hidden Figures she also depicts the frustrating sexism and racism endured by highly educated women working for NASA (or in this case (NACA) in the 1950's and 60's. Some of the scenes will make your blood boil. (Female astronaut trainees forced to wear bikinis for pool training rather than the bulky flight suits the male trainees wear was probably the most flagrant example.)

I loved the original Elma novelette but this prequel novel has made me enjoy the character more fully. A Ph.D. physicist and mathematician, Elma was also a WASP pilot during World War II. Here we grow to see her as a multidimensional and vulnerable person, dealing with the anxiety of the loss of her parents and grandmother in the meteorite event, and more media and public attention than she ever desired as she works to forward the space program that will help get the human race off a planet on the brink of disaster. She is a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend as well as a scientist and pilot. More than anything, Elma wants to be an astronaut and has since childhood. She is undeterred by the obstacles of a NACA and military that clearly don't want women on board, and a commanding officer who despises her. Her grit and tenacity were wonderful to read.

Embodying the concept of "Nevertheless, she persisted" in all the best ways, this book is a wonderful fictional encouragement to aspiring young adults seeking their dreams while making it clear that they have to be prepared in order to build them. The Calculating Stars releases today, July 3. Its sequel, The Fated Sky, releases in August and I can't wait to read it!

I received a paperback Advance Reading Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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